KRUGER: RIVERS, SUNSETS AND BAOBABS
No two visits to the Kruger Park will ever be the same, my father told a then 12-year-old daughter whilst we were bopping our way towards the Phalaborwa Gate and his favourite camp, Letaba. in a tiny grey VW Beetle.
The camp itself not only holds many wonderful memories of a man who left a family legacy for generations who have come to love this almost miraculous conservation area that traverses the provinces of Limpopo and Mpumalanga, but was where I experienced so many firsts – my first leopard sighting, my first meeting with a massive elephant bull and my first experience of another big bush veld presence, the magnificent baobab.
This trip – with my mother Audrey, my father’s much loved grandson Wesley and his mate Kingsley Biddington who has worked everywhere from Nambiti to the Masai Mara, was to honour the memory of my father, Sydney Jones, in the place he loved most – the peaceful viewing spot that looks over the vast Engelhart Dam with its fish eagle guardians and plentiful population of hippos and crocs.
A JOURNEY TO THE NORTH
From the family album ...
This time round, we were heading for the Phalaborwa Gate which opens into the central Kruger Park and is just over 500 kilometres from Johannesburg, where we had overnighted with family.
The trip from Johannesburg via the somewhat grubby little city of Polokwane (formerly known as Pietersburg) was an interesting one. Just after we’d cleared the outlying impoverished areas of the Limpopo province’s capital, we somewhat surprisingly found ourselves winding through beautiful mountainous areas en route for the Kruger via Tzaneen.
The forest views stretched out and roadside stalls were piled with citrus fruit and avos.
Although Letaba is officially in the central Kruger, for me it has always been a gateway to the North, a land of mysteries I am still to discover as we tend to spend slightly longer spells in camps and try not to dash from one to the other. That way, you tend to get to know the area and see more.
I am still to visit Punda Maria and Pafuri at the far northern tip of the park.
The plan for this trip was to join the old with the new – visit favourite camps Letaba and Shingwedzi and then spend two nights at a
camp we had never visited before – Shimuwini.
When visiting the northern reaches of the park (okay, the fringes in this case), it’s good to manage expectations. This may be one of the most beautiful parts of the park with magnificent rocky outcrops and plenty of archaeological stop-offs as well as some wonderful birding, but it is not big five country that you will find in the south of the park.
It is also, thankfully, not big people country and you are spared the large numbers of people and even traffic jams at big cat sightings that tend to ruin that experience for me.
As your trusty Kruger map will tell you, this is a drier part of the park with lower game densities populated by Mopani scrub and sourveld around the Shingwedzi area. It is also home to so many of the park’s big tuskers and larger herds of buffalo.
THE LETABA LEGACY
We made our way into Letaba at last light and settled into our comfortable home-away-from-home, Kudu Cottage. A magnificent sunset peered through the Mopani shrubbery and lighted up the big sweeping bend of the Letaba River next to which the camp is built.
All at once, I was transported back to days when I walked to the fence with my Dad and a pair of binoculars to scan the river bed and headed off proudly helping carry the family’s braai meat to a joint braai area made up of halved 50 gallon drums where residents exchanged camp fire tales and news of the day’s sightings.
In those days, the lights went off after around eight and littlies were tucked up long before then to fall asleep whilst gazing up at the patterns in the thatched roof above them and, hopefully, not wake to the whooping of hyenas in the dead of night.
The hyenas were still calling all these years later but the camp itself has changed markedly since the old days. It is modern and everyone now braais in front of their own hut or cottage. A visit to the restaurant, which overlooks the Letaba River, was pleasant – but a sad reminder of the ever present times of woe was the burnt out carcass of the shop which caught fire in 2020 during the height of Covid restrictions. It seems that nothing has been done to rebuild so far and the sightings boards where we always stopped to check where people were seeing things were also missing.
As a camp, Letaba is one of the more beautiful with lovely gardens which include Impala lilies which were blooming during our visit. Birdlife is prolific in the camp and this is a good spot to photograph anything from hoopoes to woodpeckers and those big characters of the park, the hornbills.
A lovely walk way has been built along the perimeter fence and Kingsley and Wesley kept up another family tradition, spotting night time game from the fence line with a trusty torch in hand.
A must visit is the Letaba Elephant Hall, South Africa’s only museum dedicated to elephants. In addition to the life sized elephant statue that greets you, there’s also a complete elephant skeleton as well as the history and the tusks of Kruger’s greatest tuskers (known as the Magnificent Seven) Kzombo, Joao, Kambaku, Mafunyane, Nlulamithi, Shawu and Shingwedzi).
Of course, there’s a lot more – and you’ll find out about elephant biology, behaviour, ecology and evolution as you wander around. It’s always a good starting point as you can view your
elephant neighbours with a lot more background knowledge when you encounter them on your game drives.
Of course, elephants loomed large during out game drives as did buffalo, zebra, giraffe and more. A prized sighting was a beautiful Marshall eagle as well as a hyena and pup who were dosing on the side of the road as we made our way back from a brief visit to the Olifants camp.
It was also during this trip that Kingsley went into “game ranger mode” and gathered a armoured ground cricket from a bush for an introduction. He also gently ushered a chameleon who was trying to cross the tarred road along. We were happy that he wouldn’t land under the tyres of a careless motorist.
Our trip from Letaba to Shingwedzi included a short spell on the tarred main road where we enjoyed our second cheetah sighting – this time a mom with sub adult cubs – and then a chance to veer off to the much loved S52 – the road which eventually joins up with the Kanniedood hide and becomes what we know as the river road that leads to the eastern entrance to the Shingwedzi camp.
Along the way, we enjoyed plenty of large groupings of grazers and some wonderful elephant sightings.
What was very different this time round was the lush green bush at the beginning of winter, not to mention the fact that rivers that do not ordinarily flow in the colder months were full of water and, in some cases, flowing extremely strongly.
The Letaba, which means “river of sand” was anything but and the same went for the Singwedzi which we had never seen filled with water before.
New memories from Letaba ...
A SHINGWEDZI SOJOURN
Named for one of the park’s big tuskers, this camp is not only much smaller and far more rustic than its more central counterpart, but one where the realities of staying in the wilder parts of the Kruger quickly set in. The wonderful folk in the chalet next door quickly told us to lock away all food inside to avoid raids by vervet monkeys and baboons. There was no cell phone signal but there was perfect, beautiful silence and magnificent, star studded night skies.
Wesley and Kingsley reported seeing a shooting star during one of their nightly viewing excursions.
This time round, the Shingwedzi was flowing quite strongly, so we spent less time wandering along the so-called river road and more exploring roads we had never been on before.
My last visit to Shingwedzi was during a severe drought and we had been advised to keep to the places where there was water.
One thing hadn’t changed – there was not a blade of grass in the camp then and there was nothing now.
But outside the two gates, things were totally different. This was where we enjoyed most of our best game sightings – plenty of zebras and elephants, a herd of buffalo as well as a few lone rangers who stared moodily at us from their wallows, a giraffe battle almost next to the road, beautiful birds of prey, dainty nyalas and kudu, serene water buck and a honey badger foraging in one of the river beds.
But the highlights were definitely time spent with a mother African wildcat and her two kittens on the river bank – she was definitely on the hunt but her youngsters repeatedly scuppered her attempts – and the beautiful male leopard at Red Rock.
We had headed off to the Tsanga lookout where we stopped for a morning coffee and time to admire the panoramic view. The trip there had been wonderful with Kingsley introducing me to all the wonderful trees – the russet bush willow, lead wood, apple leaf and jackal berry, looking out the window for animal tracks and finally, stopping to investigate the alert of a distressed squirrel and finding an eagle owl snoozing on a branch nearby.
From Tsanga, we made our way back to red rock to admire the beautiful rock formations at this viewing point. It was only once we had stretched our legs and looked out over the beautiful river bed that Wes informed me that we were being watched by a beautiful big male leopard from under a shady tree.
We spent some time watching him move from rock to rock, disappearing and then returning into view as he made his way along the river bed, finally vanishing over the river bank.
We finally headed away from Shingwedzi with a little excitement as we were going to a bush camp where none of us had stayed during the 50 years or more that the family has been visiting the park.
We headed towards the Tropic of Capricorn and explored the somewhat arid areas surrounding the camp of Mopani before watching beautiful water birds at the nearby Pioneer dam and then dashing off to the camp itself to change a flat tyre and stock up at the shop as our bush camp destination doesn’t have shops or a petrol station.
SHIMUWINI – THE PLACE OF THE BAOBAB
As you go towards Shimuwini, you begin to notice the wonderful riverine forests and the majestic baobab trees on rocky outcrops. This little camp is situated between sparse isolated hills in the west and the Lebombo Mountains in the east in a remote area along the Letaba River. Shimuwini is apparently a Shangaan word that means Place of the Baobab Tree and we were told that the area is also rich in pre-historic artefacts.
The Baobab tree, also known as the Tree of Life, is apparently a nutrient-rich succulent that absorbs and stores water, providing both food and shelter for humans and wildlife. Shimuwini is gifted with two magnificent specimens close by which are said to be between 2000 and 3000 years old.
The Baobab Gallery ...
Of course, we returned to the two resident baobabs over and over at different times of day. Kingsley pointed out how elephants had damaged the bottom of the oldest and largest of these and then showed us how rocks had been placed around its base to stop these big beasts from doing any more damage.
The camp itself, which includes just 15 huts of various configurations, looks out over the Shimuwini Dam and Letaba River and has all home comforts in a truly jaw dropping setting. Electrical power is provided by solar panels and guests not only have a stretch of road exclusively for their use but also a lovely bird hide from which to view game and birds whilst in camp.
Although the resident leopard of the valley had been spotted by some of the residents, we were not as lucky. However, we enjoyed the rugged terrain and the game in the area before finally winding our way through the termite mound filled bush back to Phalaborwa from which we, somewhat sadly, exited the park.
On the road again .....
We’ll be visiting the southern Kruger Park in a few months time. Watch this space ….