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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 onĀ  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 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.