Kruger and Limpopo – Part 1

27th July to 24th August 2021

August and September are not the best months to go birding but we needed to get away and test our new caravan. The weather was variable – and mostly cool to cold with a few days of T-shirt weather – also not good for birding. However we made the best of it and enjoyed our time up north especially in the Limpopo region outside of the Kruger NP.

After struggling to find places to camp in the Kruger, we eventually found 3 nights in Crocodile Bridge, 2 nights in Satara, 4 nights in Shingwedzi followed by 2 nights in Tsendze. It had to be in that order for only those nights at each of those camps as the park was full. It was the only sequence available. We had hoped to stay longer but unusually even Punda Maria was full.

With that booked we then made a plan to see other places in Limpopo. Leaving Tsendze we headed north for Nthakeni Bush and River Camp (just outside the Pafuri gate) spending 3 nights there, followed by 3 nights at Tshipise (to the west) to replenish food stocks and to see “The Big Tree” – Sagole Baobab (second largest tree by girth in the world) – absolutely impressive. A must see if you are in the area.

From Tshipise we headed west for a little known place on the Limpopo River past Alldays – Boelamien River Camp. 3 nights there then 3 nights at Blouberg Nature Reserve, followed by 4 nights at Mapungubwe National Park, and 2 nights at a campsite in Dinokeng – Thorn Tree Bushcamp – just north of Pretoria before heading home.

Part 1. The Kruger

27th July to 10th August 2021

Crossing the Crocodile River

A long drive to Crocodile Bridge in the Kruger NP – just over 9 hours, we arrived in time to set up camp and go for a short late afternoon drive. Three nights there meant we had only two full days to explore the vicinity round the camp and explore further afield – the S25 following the Crocodile River towards Malelane, north to Skukuza, Lower Sabie and as far north as Tshokwane.

Welcomed by a friendly female Bushbuck

We had sightings of Cheetah and Leopards before we eventually saw a Lion. Elephants abound and Buffalo present. No Rhinos seen however.

Our campsite and typical scenery.

Our Campsite

Sunset Dam nearby Lower Sabie Camp is a “must” visit. There is always activity there of some sort. Crocodiles and Hippos in the water or lying on the banks. Birds on the banks and in the dead trees in the Dam.

Our interest was more focused on birds and keeping away from other people. In all we identified 121 different bird species . Here are some of the animals and birds that we photographed.

Wandering around the camp looking over the fence towards the Crocodile River we noticed a Saddle-billed Stork behaving like a Black Heron – casting its wings forward creating a shadowed area over the water ahead. It walked back and forth repeating this manoeuvre.

Another sighting was good to see. It involved a Burchell’s Zebra behaving quite wildly – as they do – kicking madly at other Zebras while rolling on its back. Dust flying everywhere. Perhaps that is what they do to dust their backs?

From Crocodile Bridge we headed to Satara for 2 nights. Only one full day there.

An unshaded Campsite.

A wasted trip to the Sweni Hide:

Sightings were quiet – both animals and birds. I think we only managed to see about 70 different species of birds. Here are some of them:

From Satara we headed north to Shingwedzi for 4 nights – three full days.

Blue Route.
A well-shaded campsite

Despite being at Shingwedzi for three full days, our bird list was only about 90 species.

Once we left Satara, Buffalo and Elephant were plentiful and they were the only two of the “Big Five” that we saw during the rest of our time in the Kruger. I lie – we did see one majestic Lion. We spent a little more time taking photos of animals that we saw. Here are those that we photographed:

On one drive we saw movement in the bush beside us – about 10 metres in. What was that we thought. Initial impression was a Grey Duiker. Back we went to get a decent look. Fortunately the animal did not immediately run away – as they normally do. There it was – I think I can safely say that this was the first time either of us had ever seen one.

Sharp’s Grysbok

Birds in the area:

Interesting geology in the area. Go to Red Rocks to see what I mean.

For a long time until quite recently our bogie bird was the Coqui Francolin. This visit to the Kruger was different as we saw it in several places. One instance was right in the road in front of us. A male on the left side and a female crossing over to join him.

From Shingwedzi we back-tracked to probably our favourite camps in the Kruger – Tsendze Rustic Camp. Right next to the Mooi Plaas picnic site. The camp has no other accommodation other than camp sites with no power. It is a well shaded campsite with many fully grown trees. It is managed by Elena and Rodgers – superb hosts.

It is also known for its Owls and Owlets. We have seen African Scops Owl, Pearl-spotted Owlet, African Barred Owlet, Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl either in the camp or next door in the Mooiplaas picnic site. This time we added one more – the African Wood-Owl. Sitting above our heads as we washed our dishes in the wash-up area – pointed out to us by Elena who had remembered our interest for birds from previous visits.

We listened to the African Scops Owl all night each night, we heard the Verreaux’s Eagle Owl as well as the African Barred Owlet. The African Wood-Owl was silent but present.

There are several areas around Tsendze which we always enjoy visiting. The low level bridge on the way to the Shipandani Hide and the Pioneer Dam at Mopani. Several spots on the H14 to Phalaborwa. And the Mooiplaas waterhole on the S49.

Amazingly we managed to visit all of these areas in the short time we were there. We did make a point of getting there early and setting up camp by lunchtime.

The low level bridge on the way to Pioneers dam was bird busy as usual. Black Crakes (frequently seen there) a Hamerkop and a Striated Heron were the main entertainers. A juvenile Blacksmith Lapwing chased the Striated Heron to the Hamerkop which faced off against each other in a friendly sort of way.

Immediately after the bridge is the Shipandani Overnight Hide overlooking this portion of the Tsendse River. As we approached the hide three Klipspringers blocked our path. Not what we expected to see so low down from their normal habitt on top of cliffs. s

The Mooiplaas Waterhole is often busy with Elephant drinking and others like the Blue Wildebeest slating their thirst or hanging around. However one of the birds we look for there is the Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Lark.

At the start of the H14 tar road heading south-west to Phalaborwa we have usually encountered an abundance of Hyenas and their pups every time we have driven it. Again we saw several groups of Hyenas hanging around the culverts.

Hyena

The Magpie Shrikes serenaded us as we drove. We then came across an obliging male Double-banded Sandgrouse which stayed by the road as its partner disappeared into the bush.

After a little while we came to the low level bridge across the Letaba River. Fortunately there are lay byes halfway across the bridge where one can park and look around. We must have spent at least an hour here and not only saw a goodly number of birds but we also listened to a Lion roaring from time to time in the veldt on the other side of the bridge. We looked for him along the river bank but he was moving about in the bush.

One of the special birds we saw by chance:

After an hour or more there, we headed for the 2 short loops on the left after the Shivulani Lookout point. The loops took us down beside the river with some slow moving shallow water.

However just after leaving the bridge we noticed an animal as it just entered the scrub on the left as we approached. Not thinking much of it we cruised up alongside it – only to discover it was a male Lion lying on the verge. What a male! All on our own, we stopped beside it and enjoyed its company and its shaggy hairstyle.

King of the Beasts

Eventually we arrived at the loop roads. A little spur off to one side provided an ideal place for a cup of tea and biscuits. The previous time we had seen several hyenas lolling about in the water. Not so fortunate this time. But we did see a pair of African Pied Wagtails trolling the shallow river.

On the second loop there is a lookout point high over the river. From here we admired the antics of a Honey Badger looking presumably for ants around the base of several trees. At one a Groundscraper Thrush joined him for a snack.

Sadly we had to leave Tsendze after 2 nights. Nthakeni Bush and River Camp beckoned us. Another one of our favourite camps in the area.

We followed the blue line north

Nthakeni Bush and River Camp is only 5 kms outside the Pafuri Gate situated on the Mutale River with vegetation similar to the Pafuri Picnic site. It is run by Annelize and Kobus who cannot do enough for you.

On the way to the Camp you cross a low lying bridge over the Mutale River. The locals can be seen doing their laundry.

The water is so clear and clean

Nthakeni Camp has cottages and campsites, a pool and a clubhouse with an honesty bar. The campsites each have their own ablution and kitchen facilities.

There are also a couple of trails well laid out and kept in good condition. They meander through the bush, close to the massive Baobabs, past the Baobab campsites, alongside the river and up the hills for a scenic view.

When we tried to book for our first night (of 3) nights they had no campsites available. However they offered us a cottage for that night and asked us to pay what we could afford. The cottage was close to and facing the Mutale river.

Cottage for the first night

Our Campsite for the next 2 nights and its view.

It takes less than half an hour to get into the Kruger through the Pafuri entrance gate and down to the birding area of the Pafuri bridge, picnic site and Crooks’ Corner. Excellent for the birding we wished to do there.

Two mornings were spent visiting the Pafuri area. Back midday to enjoy the campsite. Our last morning we walked one of the Nthakeni trails and had good sightings of the abundant bird species. Here are some of the photos we took of birds around the camp.

As with the rest of the Kruger our birding was also quiet in the Pafuri region but we did have a couple of special sightings.

As we neared the bridge from the picnic site we noticed a falcon-like bird at the top of a distant bare tree. Resting the scope on a bag over car window ledge we were thrilled to see a Dickinson’s Kestrel. No apologies for the quality of the photos. Rather distant!

And then at the bridge we were treated several times to a Bohm’s Spinetail flying overhead. Eight images to scroll through – not all of any quality but there to give an impression of the way they are shaped.

And that is it for our time visiting the Kruger. Part 2 will include the camps we visited after Nthakeni until we got home. Tshipise (and The Big Tree), Boelamien River Camp, Blouberg Nature Reserve, Mapungubwe National Park and Thorn Tree Bushcamp in Dinokeng.

Hope you have enjoyed the read.

Sally and Paul Bartho

Kruger National Park – Part 3 – Satara and Letaba

11th to 14th October 2020

Satara

Our friends went to Satara a day earlier than us. We arrived as the rain paused making our life easier in setting up in the campground. Our friends had experienced some rather heavy rain during a big storm that night. We don’t normally put our sides up but we did while here in Satara in case there was a combination of wind as well as rain.

Exploration round the campsite was limited due to the heavy rain. It seemed the lions were enjoying the cooler weather. There were 6 lions close to camp – as usual lying down – beside the road in a rather bedraggled wet state.

The following morning we decided to drive along the S100. However when we got there the road was closed. We later learned that our friends had got there at opening time and the road was open. So we headed along the H6 to the N’wanetsi picnic site with the intention of visiting the Sweni hide close by. Not to be, the road to the hide was closed too.

However we did get a slight (maybe more) fright as a lone bull elephant came crashing out of the bushes.

Having travelled thus far into the Kruger, we at last had our first sighting of a Black-backed Jackal.

From there we went to Gudzani Dam along the S41 and enjoyed having the place to ourselves.

Gudzani Dam and African Openbill

As we passed the S100 we noticed that the road was open so we went back that way only to find it was still closed at the other end much to our annoyance. Somehow we managed to drive round the blocked road.

It was along the S100 that we had some good sightings of a variety of birds.

There was even an African Harrier-Hawk searching for food.

African Harrier-Hawk

Driving along the H7 we stopped at the Nsemani Dam with Brown-headed Parrots flying alongside the road right next to us.

Further along on the Timbavati Road we were fortunate to see 7 wild dogs. They were lying beside the roar in all sorts of contorted positions. One rose and promptly flopped down again.

We had heard good reports about a locally run campsite in Manyeleti. A reserve adjacent to the Kruger near the Orpen Gate. The next day we all decided to check it out. We were under-impressed. Bare stony and open campsite. However there was a large dam close by with numerous Collared Pratincoles flying about.

On the way photos were taken of several animals and birds.

In the 2 full days we were there we did identify 106 different bird species. Click on the link below to review our records.

From Satara we went to Letaba for 3 nights.

Letaba

14th to 17th October 2020

Letaba

The campsite at Lataba was only half full and we camped on the fence line for a change with bushes either side so although it was not necessarily that shady it was private from neighbours.

Both game and birds were unusually scarce in the area.

One of the animal highlights at our time in the Letaba area was seeing inquisitive Hyena pups alongside the car.

The African Scops Owl called each night in the camp – a magic sound.

This was well before the recent floods so the rivers were not that full and the landscape was parched.

The roadsides were lined by bright yellow bushes creating a colourful impression especially in the early morning light.

There were few campsite birds. Not surprising perhaps due to C-19 and the closure of the camps and the birds having to forage elsewhere. No easy snacks for them.

Stopping at Mingerhout Dam for a tea break we noticed a Black Egret below the dam wall and loads of Hippos frollicking in the water below.

Mingerhout Dam

Here are a few bird photos from our time in Letaba.

Despite the lack of many bird sightings, Sally managed to record 111 different bird species – seen and or heard. Click here to see the list.

Cheers

Sally and Paul

PS Part 4 will follow soon with our stay at Tsendze.

Kruger Part 8 – Satara

Kruger Part 8

Satara

Report by Paul and Sally Bartho

1 to 4 December 2018

Campsite Satara by the fence

Satara and the surrounds were very dry. None of the dams had any water. Only the N’wanetsi Dam had a little water in it. In which the Buffalo lay side by side with the Crocodiles.

The camp was empty. We had a choice of sites so elected to try one by the fence for a change. Choice spot under a shady tree we thought. Unfortunately it was also the choice spot for the birds to roost resulting in a lot of cleaning of the canvas when we decamped.

Definitely the best birding was in the camp and we did spend one of our mornings doing just that.

There was the Woodland Kingfisher in glorious vibrant colour.

Woodland Kingfisher

Squabbling Red-billed Buffalo-Weavers.

And many others.

Knobbly roots of a fever tree in the grounds by the reception.

Crocodile Roots

Driving around the area we came across some a giraffe with its new born, the odd Kudu, a Scrub Hare and a spotted Hyena relaxing on the road with its back feet neatly tucked in.

Some other birds seen:

Common Scmitarbill

At one of the pumped waterholes just north of the camp there were dozens of Vultures – perhaps waiting for bath time. Mostly White-backed.

A drive down to the Muzandzeni picnic site for breakfast one morning proved to be a potentially scary experience. On arrival two cars drove out as we drove in to the empty picnic site. We chose a shady table and enjoyed our breakfast. Then as we were about to leave an army truck with soldiers drove in. Quite casually they asked Sally if she was aware of the lions under a tree not 100 metres away!! Hmmm no!

The lions

As we watched so the Impala approached the lions cautiously to keep a beady eye on them and their potential movements. As I said, we had enjoyed our breakfast but we could easily have been theirs.

We had planned to be here for five nights. The heat and dryness of the area led to our change of mind. Three nights was enough. We changed our itinerary to go to Lower Sabie for two nights, two nights at Skukuza and finally 2 nights at Malelane before heading home.

On our last day there we over-lapped with some other friends from Durban – Mike and Jane Roseblade. We had an evening braai together and a good chinwag. As we returned to our campsite the heavens started to brighten – lightening everywhere around us yet no thunder. Eventually the much wanted rain came. Enough to cool things down but not nearly enough to quench the parched soil.

In the morning we left early and headed for Lower Sabie.

Next Installment – Kruger Part Part 9 – Lower Sabie to follow.

Paul and Sally Bartho

Zululand and the Kruger – Part 3

Satara 26 to 30 October 

Paul & Sally Bartho

Leaving Crocodile Bridge we drove to Lower Sabie, crossed the Sabie River and headed for Satara via Tshokwane arriving early afternoon.

Stopping for tea at Tshokwane we noticed this unusually dark African Mourning Dove.

African Mourning Dove - dark form
African Mourning Dove

After setting up camp we had a message on Trevor Hardaker’s Rare Birds report that a Green Sandpiper had been seen at the Sweni bridge just south of the camp. We went to have a look and it did not take us long to find it. This would have been a lifer for me had I not seen one a month earlier at Darvil sewerage works in Pietermaritzberg.

The following day we drove along the S100 to the Sweni Bird Hide near the N’wanetsi picnic site. Along the way we came across what we thought was a pair of Red-necked Spurfowls – however on advise from Trevor Hardaker they are in fact hybrids – Red-necked and Swainson’s. As there were two together, we hope that they are both of the same sex!

The Sweni Hide was one of the highlights of our trip. We were entertained there for hours not only by the crocodiles and hippos camouflaged by the weed but also by the variety of birds which visited the hide – including a pair of what we think might be Dwarf Bitterns (possible Green-backed Heron juvenile but for the heavy black streaking on the front – unfortunately not shown well in the photos) and several Black-crowned Night Herons.

Hippos resting in peace
Hippos in repose

The following morning we set off really early to get to the Sweni Hide as we had enjoyed it so much the day before. On the way as we crossed a bridge and looked down we saw 2 elephants digging for water. There was a pool nearby but it was obviously not to their taste. What was interesting was that the hole they dug with their trunks was perfectly round and several feet deep. The elephants knew the water was there and that the sand would filter the water for them.

Elephants searching for water
Elephants searching for water

 As we reached the hide we first went to the river crossing and looked back up to the hide. What a good decision. In the closest part of the river Sally noticed an unusual bird – the first of four different sightings of this bird.

Some of the other birds and animals we managed to photograph in the area include:

Altogether we found 140 different bird species in and around Satara.

Next we moved on to Tsendze – the satellite camp to Mopani. It is situated next to the Mooiplaas picnic area. See Part 4 of this series.