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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 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 – Wild Dogs!

When we left the picnic site after breakfastWildDog_D__8743 veld on either side was dry and dusty and seemingly devoid of any life. Then, as it happens in the Kruger Park, we turned a corner and everything changed. A few cars were parked by the side of the road, and just off the road, under the trees, were the wild dog pack from the previous night, looking very sleepy and relaxed. We took a few quick snaps, but soon decided that sleepy dogs in harsh light will never make truly stunning photos.

Wild dogs usually sleep during the day. They wake up in the late afternoon, play for a few minutes, and then move off to hunt. Knowing this, we let the sleeping dogs lie (ha ha) and left, planning to return around 3 in the afternoon, and then wait for them to get up and start playing. We went back to the camp, freshened up, had some ice-cream, and then went back to the dogs. We waited about an hour, during which we at least got to photograph a rasp of guineafowl the moved past, briefly getting agitated when the saw the dogs.

The dog closest to the road briefly woke up, and stared at the guineafowl for a few minutes before falling back to sleep.

Then, one of the dogs sleeping further away from the road got up and went to wake up one of its fellows. Their activity seemed to rouse the other dogs, and suddenly the entire pack seemed to come alive..

We managed to get a few more shots before they moved off into the bushes and we left the area with broad smiles on our faces. On our way back to the camp, we passed the Nsmani dam, with the sun setting spectacularly through the smoke of distant velt-fires. A perfect end to a fabulous day!

Operation Flamingo

The graceful flamingo has always been a source of fascination for both of us, and the lack of good photos in our portfolio, a source of frustration. So when we found out that there were flamingos as Glen Austin Pan, not far from where we live, we wasted no time in going to check it out. Our first reconnaissance trip showed a lot of promise – we could get fairly close to the pan on the Western side and with nothing obscuring the sunset, a late afternoon shoot could yield good results.

Two weeks later, we went back, armed with our long lenses. Glen Austin Pan and it’s flamingos did not disappoint!