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 Part 7 Tsendze Rustic Camp

Kruger Part 7

Tsendze Rustic Camp

Report by Paul and Sally Bartho

28 November to 1 December 2018

Campsite No 23

We arrived at Tsendze after checking in at Mopani. A bit of a shlep especially if you are coming from the south as it is about eight kms north of the camp. The camp is well treed and great for birding. It is right next to the Mooiplaas picnic site and you can walk through if you ask permission (saves driving the three kms all the way round). The picnic site is also well treed and right next to the Tsendze river so birding is excellent there too.

Campsite showing the position and level ground

The one thing we loved was the early morning dawn chorus. We (mainly Sally) identified numerous different birds calling before getting out of bed.

Tsendze is also known for its owls – the African Scops-Owl, the Barred and Pearl-spotted Owlets in particular. In the past we also saw and heard the Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl there. This time only the Owlets were heard calling.

Story time. On arrival Sally went off to check the plumbing. She returned rather quickly with news that the ladies loo had been closed because a suspected Black Mamba had been seen inside the day before. Fortunately there was another set of loos further into the campsite.

Our first morning was full of surprises.

It started with a Cheetah kill right beside the road. We watched for a while as it got fatter and fatter. After a while we left it in peace but determined to return to watch the Vultures flock to finish it off.

Further on next to the marshes we came across a Honey Badger doing its thing with a number of avian followers hoping to catch the tidbits.

Yet further we stopped as we heard a Red-crested Korhaan calling. It was right in front of us in the road. It called three times and immediately after it had finished the third call it took off heading vertically for between 5 and 10 metres before flipping onto its back and falling out of the sky – much like those acrobatic planes do. Just before it hit the ground it opened its wings and pulled out of the dive. A truly amazing sight to see.

On return along the same road we had another Red-crested Korhaan do the same thing. Our cameras however were not ready to catch either event.

Returning now to see the vultures at the kill, we came across some Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Larks at the Mooiplaas waterhole.

Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Lark

As we were looking at them another vehicle approached and asked us what we were looking at. Their response was not the usual “Oh” and drive off. They told us to proceed a little further and look to our left in the open area by the waterhole.

We were more than pleased that they had suggested this as we came across a bird in full display. It was something neither of us had ever seen before and remains as one of the highlights of our trip.

At first it was hard to recognise although we immediately knew what it was. Listening to its call was something else too. We did a short video which unfortunately I cannot post on this website. However here are some of the photos we took.

Kori Bustard in all his majesty

After it moved off into the bush, we moved off to check the vultures at the Cheetah kill a short way away.

On arrival we were very surprised to see that the whole carcass had been eaten. In the 4 hours after we had seen the Cheetah kill there was very little left and all the vultures had gone. Except for these two.

Lappet-faced Vultures – aren’t we cute

What a morning.

The weather became cloudy and rain was forecast. So after a long lunch and rest we took a ride around and ended up at the Mooiplaas Picnic Site. The wind was blowing and the birds scarse. Something was up and they knew about it.

Looking across the river we realised we better get back to camp quickly. There was a massive dust cloud coming our way and rather fast. Perhaps the rain was behind it, we thought. Although the camp was right next door we had to drive about three kms to enter through the gate. By the time we reached the gate so had the dust cloud. Opening the gate we quickly got back to our campsite and battoned down the hatches as best we could. Thunder and lightening all around but very little rain unfortunately.

Some day.

The next day we explored Mopani, its dam (the Pioneer Dam) and we took a drive down the way to Joubert’s Grave.

As we turned off the main road to the Mopani camp, there below us were Tsessebe and young. In the past Tsessebe were unusual to see, this trip we had numerous sightings of them predominantly in the area around Mopani.

There is a walk around the fence line below the Mopani restaurant and next to the Pioneer dam. Definitely worth a walk round as you can see the waterbirds up close and in the bush below the restaurant birds are seen and heard. Probably the sweetest of those was the call of the White-throated Robin-Chat.

We did encounter a Dove which had us perplexed for a while.

Mystery Dove with gills on its neck. Possible Mourning Collared Dove – juvenile?

Here are some of the birds we saw along our walk.

On the opposite side of the dam from the camp there is a hide. And another hide is on the way there overlooking the dammed Tsendze river. Driving round to the first of the hides we came to a road block.

Road Block

We waited patiently for them to clear off – and they did – up the bank to the right towards us in the photo. Just to the right across the bridge is the hide overlooking the river. However there was not much about while we were there. Every time that we have crossed that bridge we have seen Black Crake to the left. It was no different this time.

Opposite the entrance to the hide is a rocky koppie on which elephants were grazing and Sally noticed this ground Euphorbia.

A bit further along there is a turn off to the right to the Hide overlooking the Pioneer Dam. The view from the hide shows the size and extent of the dam.

The birds were on the other side and required the scope to identify them. On this side there was one camouflaged to the shoreline.

Green-backed Heron

Next we headed down the S146 to Jopubert’s Grave. At first this seemed a lost cause at that time of day. Half way there we came across a tall koppie of rock with a rather interesting and large Baobab half way down it – facing us as we came along.

From a distance it looked evil as though it wanted to capture us in its arms.

I am going to get you.

It was a very unusual looking tree. Some photos from different angles. Not so creepy.

When we eventually got to the end of the road – having battled with a few elephant to get through we came to a river but no sign of a Grave. Now wondering if we weren’t a bit stupid trying to get passed the elephants which were on both sides of the road.

So to kill some time to give the elephants time to move on we took a side road to see where it went. Straight to Stapelkop Dam as it turns out. Very unexpected and a great surprise as it had a load of water in it and there was game and many waterbirds about. Also Vultures by the dozen on the dam wall – presumably coming for a dip. We stayed for over an hour with nobody else around.

Elephants at Stapelkop Dam

Mopani was always a camp we used to avoid as driving though mopani trees never seemed to be productive for wildlife. However after the first time we stayed at Tsendze our impression changed drastically and this has become a must whenever we come to the Kruger.

Here are some photos of other birds we saw in the area.

European Roller

In total we identified 140 different bird species. To see the list click here.

One of the least expected sightings was that of a Zebra with a Yellow-billed Oxpecker on its  back. The furthest south that we have seen a Yellow-billed Oxpecker in the Park.

Zebra and friend the Yellow-billed Oxpecker

Coming soon. Kruger Part 8 – Satara

Paul and Sally Bartho

Zululand and the Kruger – Part 4

Tsendze 31 October to 4 November

Paul and Sally Bartho

Tsendze is the satellite camp to Mopani. It is situated right next to the Mooiplaas picnic area. It is a rustic camp for campers only and has no power available. There is however, a kitchen and washup area,  solar energy for lights and gas heating for hot water. As a new addition there are gas freezers available for those who need them. The camp is well treed so there is ample shade. This was our favourite camp in the Kruger and it has the friendliest and most helpful staff. The birding in the area was also pretty good.

To start with, Roger – the camp attendant – noticed that we were birders. “Come with me”, he said. Right next to our campsite he showed us one of the resident African Scops Owl. Then he took us to see the resident breeding pair of African Barred Owlets. What a start to our stay.

Late one afternoon on our way back to the camp we took one of the River Loop roads. As we approached the river, Sally yelled “Stop”. Brakes on and stop. “What is it?” “Look behind the tree on the right”.  And there it was, an animal with a head like a bull mastiff and the size of a large hyena – black and white with a long bushy tail. Neither of us had seen one before so stared at it uncomprehendingly for a long time. Eventually we got out the wildlife book and discovered it was a Civet. Unfortunately this Civet had an injured right back leg and was limping badly. It took no notice of us and continued foraging within 10 metres of us. We were so engrossed with watching this lifer for both of us that we paid little attention to anything else around us. For some unknown reason Sally happened to look round and yelled “Elephant”. It was less than 5 metres from us and approaching straight at us with determination. Somehow the car managed to reverse at an unnatural speed without hitting anything. The elephant calmly strode up to where we had been parked, reached up into the tree and snapped off a small branch. Scary or what!

There is a waterhole south of the camp – Klein Nshawu. A lion had feasted on a buffalo right next to the waterhole and left its carcass there. So we went to take a look. Hyena and jackal were present as well as quite a few Vultures including White-backed and Cape.

On one of our drives we stopped at the Tihongonyeni waterhole on the S143 Tropic of Capricorn Loop. The place was abuzz with Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Larks, Kittlitz’s Plovers, Magpie Shrikes unusually congregating, around six or more in one small shrub. Elephant were drinking. We hung around for a while fortunately. Suddenly the birds all took to the air. A small raptor with a ringtail appeared and landed in a tree at least 100 metres away. Out came the scope and we realised it was a Harrier – not a mature male. On closer inspection we understood that it was not a female but a juvenile – luckily, as we would never have been able to conclusively identify it. The bold black markings round the eye indicated that it was a Pallid Harrier juvenile – much as we suspected because of the flat open dry habitat.

At another waterhole – Mooiplaas on the S50 we had another what we thought was an unusual sighting of 5 friendly Collared Pratincoles foraging in the desolate landscape.

We encountered numerous elephants in the area but one stood out. It had only one very long tusk.

Elephant - one tusker
Elephant – one tusker

Yellow-billed Oxpeckers appeared on many of the Buffalo that we saw. Not so long ago you had to go right up to the Pafuri area to try and see one.

One day we took a drive on the Tsendze loop to the south of the camp. A pleasant drive following the river. At one of the many small loops to the river we noticed a pair of unusual birds skulking near the reeds but coming out into the open now and then. Out with the scope to confirm what we thought. Our second sighting of 2 Greater Painted Snipes.

The next day we took a walk around the Mopani camp trail in front of their restaurant – a short but pleasant trail along the banks of Mopani’s Pioneer Dam. At the end of the inlet of water we came across another 2 Greater Painted Snipes – our third sighting of them. So far all males.

Next to the camp is Mooiplaas Picnic site. It has a lovely thatched picnic spot overlooking the river. It was here that we heard then found an African Cuckoo and a Black Cuckooshrike.

Both the Pioneer Hide and the Shipandani Hides are worth a visit and the river crossing before the latter always seemed to yield an interesting variety of birds in the reeds, on the water’s edge and on the causeway itself. There is also the wetland area along the S50.

And the main road, the H14 to Phalaborwa had a number of interesting minor loop roads along the river’s edge – a pretty drive.

In all this is one of our favourite areas in the park as it has a wide variety of habitats.

Here are pictures of some of the other species we saw in and around the area.

In total we observed 143 different bird species in and around Tsendze.

Our next camp for five nights was Punda Maria from which we spent a couple of mornings in Pafuri. See Part 5.