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Shipandane & Letaba Day 6: The end…

And so, the fateful day arrived – the day we had to leave the park.

The sun was up early, but – frustratingly – we couldn’t be out of the camp early. We needed to load the car, and we couldn’t get up earlier to do so, since hubby needed to be rested for the long road back to Pretoria.

We were ready to leave just after 7, but first, we wanted to continue the tradition we started on our last trip – driving through the camp with the GoPros recording, to make a video of the camp.

Then we dropped off the keys, and said goodbye to Letaba, while vowing to be back some day!

We took the main road to Phalaborwa gate. After looking for, but not finding the Hyena clan we say earlier, we turned into the S69. Because one cannot just drive straight to the gate!

Stork_1D_3956The morning was quiet, with very little game around. At the Nhlanganini river crossing, we stopped. There was a Black Stork and a Hammerkop hunting in one of the pools to the left of the road.

As we sat watching them, we got a quick glimpse of another new lifer – a Black Coucal! And just to make the collection complete – a pair of Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Larks came down to drink, bringing our specie-count up to 97!

Hammerkop_1D_4028 SparrowLark_1D_4048

We continued on, turning into the S51, to take the long route to visit Sable one last time.

Once again, Sable dam didn’t disappoint – elephants, elephants and more elephants! Not wanting to get out the gate too late, we didn’t stay long. However – the herds had other plans for us! They were all over the bush in the vicinity of the hide, and some were blocking the road! Even after the road-blockers moved off, there were a hand full of elephants browsing next to the road, and every time we tried to pass, they would face us and their body language would be quite clear – stay away, we’re eating here! So we’d stop again. After a full hour, the largest one turned his back, and started sampling a different tree just a meter or two further from the road, and we took our chance. She still turned around and gave us a “look”, but by then we were already past her, and we only saw her flap her ears in annoyance in the rear-view mirror. Phew! We were free!

Too late, we realized that with all the adrenaline pumping, neither of us had thought to switch on a GoPro! We had no footage whatsoever of the entire experience!

Back on the tar road, we saw more vulture, they were some distance from the road, but we were able to identify two more species:

  1. Lappet-faced Vulture
  2. White-headed Vulture

We reached the gate just before 12, with our birding list at 99. But it wasn’t over yet!

We stopped in the parking area, for a last leg stretch before the long road home, and also to get some cool drinks from the shop, use the bathroom, and put away the cameras and GoPros.

And of course we weren’t about to ignore the birds at the gate, and added a few more:

  1. Tawny-flanked Prinia
  2. Southern Black Flycatcher
  3. Southern Masked Weaver
  4. Cut-throat Finch
  5. Chinspot Batis

Final Bird count for the trip: 104. We beat our target with a full 29 species!

Final thoughts

About the hide:

Shipandane hide was brilliant. We will definitely be back. Next time I will try to time the trip for an earlier moon rise.

About Letaba:

Letaba was great, as was our bungalow. We enjoyed the camp very much, and will definitely be back. Next time I will try again for number 64, but I will be perfectly happy if I have to settle for 63 again. We had no complaints about it. It would be nice if the bungalows were upgraded to the standard of the one we had last time in Satara, but at the same time, there was something nostalgic about the green tiles and the too-low shower head. It’s Kruger, after all. If we wanted luxury, we would book into a lodge. The bungalow was spotlessly clean, and had everything we needed. We don’t ask for more than that in Kruger.

About the area:

The area around Letaba was stunningly beautiful. I don’t know if that is always they case, or how much of the beauty was due to the rains of December and January. As expected, wildlife wasn’t as abundant as further South, but the bird life exceeded our expectations.

About the weather:

The weather was far from brilliant – in fact, at times it was quite foul, but it failed to spoil the trip. If, as we did until a few years ago, we were focused solely on  photography, the lack of good light would have been very frustrating. However, with birding in the mix, we were never bored.

Above all – this trip accomplished its primary goal. We arrived back home relaxed, refreshed, and fully recharged.

Shipandane & Letaba Day 5: Rain, birds, a kittycat and Sweet Light!

When we stuck our noses out of the bungalow on Tuesday, 21 March, it was still wet and dreary outside, but at least the wind had calmed down over night. Since we had decided to explore the S62 that afternoon, we wanted to keep the morning drive shorter. The S69 looked ideal, not least because it would also give us the opportunity to see if we can get another glimpse of the Hyena clan from the day before.

Unfortunately, the hyenas were no where in sight, and neither was anything else. It was just us, the clouds, the occasional few drops of rain and (thank goodness!) our flask of coffee! Fortunately, the scenery was still breathtakingly beautiful, so the drive was still accomplishing our primary purpose for this trip – relaxing and de-stressing!

An hour into the drive, at the Nhlanganini river crossing, we finally got one more bird specie – a Cinnamon Breasted Bunting. The smooth, exposed rocks in the river bed also begged to be photographed, so out came the wide angle…

A few minutes later, it started raining again. This time it looked like it would rain for a while, so we decided to rather head back to camp. However, just before we reached the camp, the rain cleared again, and the sun even made a feeble attempt to break through the clouds! Fortunately, we both firmly believe that a mind is of no use if you can’t change it. So we turned left and idled up the tar road along the river bed. First, we spotted two birds:

  1. Lesser Grey Shrike
  2. Barn Swallow

RattlingCisticola_FE5A2273Then, Birding Bonanza! The kind of spot that most birders have experienced – where there just seems to be an unending number of species, all congregating in one place, and it seems you can sit there forever and keep spotting new species… We pulled off the road, shut off the engine, stuck the big lenses out the windows, and prepared to enjoy ourselves!

  1. Rattling Cisticola
  2. Cuckoo_FE5A2298African Cuckoo
  3. Marico Sunbird
  4. Cardinal Woodpecker
  5. White-bellied Sunbird
  6. Black-backed Puffback
  7. Southern Grey-headed Sparrow
  8. Village Weaver
  9. Long-billed Crombec
  10. Brown-crowned Tchagra
  11. African Paradise Flycatcher

 

Crombec_FE5A2387 Puffback_FE5A2420

Finally, after about two hours in one spot and way too much coffee, we decided that we needed to urgently return to camp… But we weren’t done yet – just before we reached camp, we spotted the one Bee-eater that we were still missing!

  1. Southern Carmine Bee-eater

After a shortish break at the camp, we were off again. This time headed for the S62. It was on our “must-do” list for the trip, and this was our last afternoon drive, so it was an obvious choice.

We were barely out of the camp, when another car flagged us down, and told us there was a leopard in a tree about 7km up the S47. Now, who can skip that? Not us! We checked the time, calculated that we had enough time to go see the leopard and still do the S62, and we were off.

Leopard_FE5A2647The leopard was sleepy and the light wasn’t very good, but we spent a while anyway, and took what photos we could, given the circumstances.

We also noticed something else – at the sighting, there were about three unmarked Landrover Defenders, all driven by people who were dressed and acting like guides, each with a few other people in the vehicle who looked and acted like one would expect of tourists. Could this be a commercial outfit, taking tourists into the park? Aren’t all professional guides supposed to have clear markings on their vehicles, or is that rule only for OSVs?

We didn’t spend too much time with the leopard, and soon we headed back to the S62. And what a treat it was! It was beautiful! The Longwe lookout was stunning, and the Engelhard dam… Wow.

We spent some time at the Engelhard dam making use of the first real sweet light on this trip. We got some nice photos of a hippo and a group of juvinile vervets playing in a massive fever tree, pausing every now and then to eat some tree gum.

Aap_1D_3654 Aap_1D_3697

We ran out of time much too soon, and had to head back to camp. We lingered on the bridge over the Letaba river, clinging to the last few minutes of our last full day in the park, and photographing two young Waterbuck bulls in the river bed, and bringing our bird lest to 94, with a Tawny eagle in the river bed, and a Giant Kingfisher on the bridge railing.

 

Shipandani & Letaba day 4: Back to Sable Dam

Monday dawned… well, no, it didn’t really dawn in the true sense of the word. I became lighter, but the clouds and the winds were still with us, so no dawn, no sunrise and no sweet light. We were still up and out of the camp early and headed for the S131.

We were only a few kms out the gate, when we saw a few cars parked next to the road up ahead. As we approached, we saw what seemed like a hyena clan, attempting to chase of another hyena – perhaps an intruder? The light was very low, but I managed to get a few nice action shots.

Hayena_1D_3049We continued on, our disappointment at the weather as least half-cured by the awesome sighting!

The first river crossing brought our bird specie count up to 67 with a Wood Sandpiper.

About an hour and a half later, we saw two huge Buffalo bulls at an unnamed watering hole. The two did not seem at all pleased to be sharing the waterhole!

 

 

Buffalo_Oxpecker_FE5A1300
The remaining bull did not, however, seem to mind sharing the watering hole with an Ox-pecker, or two!

 

 

 

Lark_FE5A1374We continued along the S131 at an easy pace, stopping every now and then to identify a bird. We saw another Sabota lark – this one much more co-operative as a model, and then a colony of White backed Vultures, apparently attending a kill that wasn’t visible from the road, since on of the birds were still covered in blood.

Vulture_1D_3312We finally arrived at Sable Dam just before noon, to find the dam once again surrounded by multiple herds of Elephant – what seemed like hundreds of animals! The clouds were coming in again, serving as a light filter and allowing for much better photographs that the ones we took on the first day…

 

 

Olifante_1D_3348After spending some time photographing and just generally enjoying the elephants, we headed back to Letaba on the tar road. The weather was quite nasty by now, with high winds, heavy cloud cover and even the occasional burst of rain, so we stuck to birding most of the way.

Bird sightings for the day:

  1. Wood Sandpiper
  2. White-backed Vulture
  3. Rufous-naped Lark
  4. Martial Eagle
  5. Black-chested Snake Eagle
  6. Dark-capped Bulbul
  7. Southern Red-billed Hornbill
  8. Yellow-fronted Canary
  9. White-fronted Plover
  10. White-crowned Lapwing
  11. Ruff

Only when we got back to Letaba and checked our updated species list, did we realise that we had passed our target of 75! So we counted it as a successful day, in spite of the weather.

Shipandani & Letaba day 3: A windy visit to Olifants

Feeling much better after a good night’s sleep, we were up early the next morning, and set off back towards the S46. We had not been able to travel very far up it the previous afternoon and we wanted to go and explore it properly.

Waterbuck_1D_2764It was still overcast, but the beauty of the bush around Letaba after the rain of January was astonishing. We found ourselves not even caring if we saw any wildlife – the beauty around us was enough! I think I will always associate this trip with stunningly beautiful river crossings. (And this trip report will probably be remembered for the over-use of the word “beautiful!”). This first of these river crossings this morning, where the S94 crosses the Nhlanganini river, was occupied by a lone water buck bull, exactly the element that we needed to make such a pretty picture complete!

 

Fiesant_1D_2776We idled along slowly, ticking off more bird species (Grey Heron, Cape Turtle Dove, White-faced Whistling Duck and Crested Francolin – bringing the number to 56).

EngelhardDam_1D_2784We stopped at the dam wall to read the plaque with a brief, but interesting history of how the dam got it’s name, and then drove further along the bank of the Letaba river.

In a clearing on the riverbank, we spotted a pretty Little Bee-eater on a dry branch (Specie number 57) and not long after, it was joined by a juvenile. Since the clouds had thinned to let in some soft, gorgeously filtered sunlight, we sat happily photographing these little beauties for a while.

BeeEater_FE5A0750 BeeEater_FE5A0700

BeeEater_FE5A0698A short distance further, in another clearing next to the river, there was an entire flock of European bee-eaters, diving and hunting and generally putting on a show. Unfortunately the clouds had lifted too much by now, rendering the light too harsh for genuinely good photos.

 

 

Since we had by now gone quite far down the s46, we decided that we might as well continue on to Olifants camp. The drive to Olifants was rather uneventful. A strong wind had come up, and so even birding was slow-going. We only ticked off one species – Red-backed Shrike (Number 58), and paused at Von Willich’s Baobab for a quick photo.

Baobab_IMG_8263At the camp, we ticked off two more species in the parking lot – Red-winged Starling and Burchell’s Starling, bought ice-cream and went to eat it out on the viewing deck, and one does at Olifants. But the wind – oh my! The viewing deck was rendered quite unpleasant, and even the ice-cream melted too fast. So we left again fairly quickly, and drove towards the N’wamanzi lookout. The view from N’wamanzi is always spectacular, and the wind here was much lighter than at the camp, so we spent a few minutes eating mini-cheddars and enjoying the view. As we stood looking, we noticed two young Vervet Monkeys playing in the bushes on the edge of the clearing. Baboons and Monkeys are always lots of fun to photograph, and the light cloud-cover had increased again, rendering the light quite reasonable for photography, so we reached for our cameras, and had some fun.

Ape_1D_2877 Ape_1D_2905

By now it was well into the afternoon, so we took the tar road back to Letaba. We still had a little over and hour till gate-closing time when we got to Letaba, so we passed by the camp, said hi to the Marabous roosting in the trees, and photographed some elephants having fun in the river.

Bird species between Olifants and Letaba:

  1. Common Buzzard
  2. Greater Honeyguide
  3. African Hawk Eagle
  4. African Wattled Lapwing
  5. Goliath Heron
  6. African Pied Wagtail

Only 9 species to go to our target!

We ended the day with a gorgeous sunset from the bridge over the Letaba river, before heading back to the camp to light the braai fire.

Shipandani & Letaba Day 2: Road to Letaba

Just before sunrise, we quickly packed up everything and moved everything except our cameras back to the car. We had hoped to take our seats on the benches again, ready for sunrise, but alas – there was no sunrise. Clouds cast the entire area in a gloomy twilight long after the sun was supposed to be up, managing only to add one bird species to our list – Green-backed Heron (Number 28)

We finally left, and drove West, towards the Pioneer hide.

Francolin_1D_2441The drive up to the hide was peaceful, and stunningly beautiful. The hide itself was quiet (and cold!), The only sign of life was a Natal Francolin, calling for its family. We took a few shots, and turned around, back to Mopani, to return the hide keys – and get some coffee!

On the bridge over the Tsendze river, we took one last glance at the hide that was our home for the night, and the hippos that had kept us company.

While we were on the bridge, a raptor that we later identified as a Brown Snake Eagle flew over the car, and sat down lower down in the river bed. This, along with a Grey Go-away-bird keeping vigil in a tree-top on the river bank, and Black Crake pecking away in the shallows, brought the number of species to 31.

Sunbird_1D_2463At the turnoff to Mopani, we just had to stop – there were what seemed like hundreds of little swifts, ducking, diving, soaring and generally making flying seem like a lot of fun! Unfortunately we each only had a 100-400 lens with us, which is neither long enough, nor fast enough to get these little guys in flight. We did, however, manage to take some snaps of a sunbird!

After handing back the keys to the reception stuff, and buying some takeaway cappuccinos, we headed for Letaba. We had only 50 km to cover and could only check in at 14:00, so there was no reason at all to hurry.

Elephant_1D_2598The heavy clouds made photography very difficult, but we did tick off more bird species from the viewing deck in Mopani:

  1. Black-headed Oriole
  2. Brown-hooded Kingfisher
  3. African Jacana
  4. Western Cattle Egret
  5. House Sparrow

as well as on the road:

  1. Little Swift
  2. Amethyst Sunbird
  3. Yellow-billed Oxpecker
  4. Wattled Starling
  5. Red-billed OxpeckerMaraboe_1D_2680
  6. Crowned Lapwing
  7. Magpie Shrike
  8. Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill
  9. Arrow-marked Babbler

As we neared Letaba, the clouds lifted slightly, allowing so light to filter through to a magnificent elephant standing among some huge trees. In the final stretch along the Letaba river, we saw a family of Marabou storks, as well as a few Common Sandpipers and a Three-banded Plover in the river bed. Just outside the camp gate, a very co-operative little Woodlands kingfisher, who just sat there chirping softly when we stopped right next to it to take some photos, bringing count up to 49 already.

Woodlands KingfisherWe arrived at Letaba around 3, checked in (as always, the staff were very professional and check-in went smoothly), and drove to our bungalow.

Letaba_1D_2693We had reserved the bungalow ahead of time and I knew I had picked a good one, based on the camp layout of photos on the SANParks forum, but – oh wow! It was by far the best situated bungalow we had ever had in Kruger! The interior was old – complete with the old, nostalgia-inducing green “Custos Naturae” tiles in the bathroom, but the view was nothing short of magnificent…

LetabaView_IMG_1713 LetabaView_IMG_1714
LetabaView_IMG_1717 LetabaView_IMG_1721

We unloaded the car, unpacked and set up our bigger lenses, and around 16:00 we were off again, exploring the S94 and S46, where we saw a Sabota Lark, spent a happy 30 min or so photographing a pair of Double-banded Sand Grouse and brought our closing species count to 52 with Kori Bustard – always a special sighting!

At sunset, we returned to the camp for a quick shower and dinner at the restaurant, after which we finally dumped our exhausted and sleep-deprived selves into bed and fell asleep to the sounds of hippos grunting in the river below.