Never mind cats, we were almost as excited to find a washing machine at Lower Sabie. So we took full advantage, strung a line up between a couple of bushes in our camp site and made ourselves at home!
Have we already mentioned that Angela might just be a little obsessed with seeing Leopards? Well this was the place to see them so you won’t be surprised to hear that we were up at dawn (again) for a drive down what we’d named Leopard Alley. Sadly, no-one had told the Leopards. After 2 hours of completely fruitless searching we were somewhat consoled by a stop alongside a large waterhole. There were the usual hippos and crocs in the water and various antelope on the far side, but within a few metres of the car were two beautiful Malachite Kingfishers (smaller than our UK fellas) and a Pied Kingfisher (bigger), all doing what they do best – fishing.
We eventually moved on, giving our prime photo spot to someone else, and headed to the picnic site at the Mlondozi Dam for breakfast. There was a huge herd of Cape Buffalo and a large herd of Elephants, which was great to see. We got chatting to the site warden who told us that earlier in the morning there had been a group of male lions that had been chased off by the Buffalo. Then, a group that had arrived a few minutes after us asked if we had seen the group of 10 lions crossing the road. No. We hadn’t. 14 lions in the area and we’d missed them all. A plan was hatched. Lions usually spend the heat of the day sleeping under some shady bush or other. They might still be in the area, and after a long hot day they would surely want a drink…
That afternoon we headed back to the dam and waited, and waited, and waited. The group we’d talked to before had had the same idea and we chatted as we watched the elephants come down to the water in the evening sunlight. It was a beautiful scene but as the light faded and we strained our eyes we still failed to spot those elusive feline forms. Our companions gave up and headed home, aware that the gate closed at 5.30, it was a 30 minute drive back to camp and it was now ten to. We watched them go, deciding to give it just a few more minutes. At 5 on the dot we gave up and pulled away from the hillside viewpoint down the short slope to the plain below. And there in the middle of the road was a male lion, right in front of us, with his 3 pals in the grass either side. We were surprised to find they were quite nervous. Maybe their run-in with the Buffalo that morning has unsettled them, or maybe it was because several of them were quite young. The one stayed in the road and in the distance down the track we saw a Hyena trotting towards us. He could obviously see the lion on the track and was unconcerned. One lion? Pah! I can take him on! Then a couple of the others came onto the track and he could see them all. You’ve never seen an animal move so quickly. He was off that track like greased lightning and disappeared into the bush faster than a scalded cat. The lions paid him no attention and we sat quietly and watched them for several minutes before they headed off towards the water.
Slightly nervous young lion
Handsome young man
Much as we’d love to have followed them we now had a problem. We were running late. If we made tracks and kept at the speed limit we might just get to the gate in time. Off we set, with the light fading fast. The atmosphere was changing and we started to feel the park change, almost becoming itself, wild and slightly unfriendly. It was a weird feeling and we felt quite small. We kept going and were making good time. Then just what we didn’t need. Elephants in the road. Up until now the eles we’d encountered in the Kruger had got out of the road pretty quickly. Not this herd. Whether it was the change in light I don’t know but as far as they were concerned the road was theirs and they weren’t going anywhere. It was a breeding herd of about 12 animals, with several youngsters and a huge bull. He was massive. For the first time we felt really vulnerable.
So we were stuck until they decided to move. After 10 minutes we realised there was no way we would make the gate in time. After a bit of quick thinking from Gareth we phoned the camp reception and told them of the situation. “We’re 5km outside the camp and there’s a herd of elephants in the road and they’re not budging. We won’t get to the gate before it closes”. “Well madam, you will just have to try to make the gate in time”. “There are baby elephants and a huge bull in the herd. We’re not driving though them! We’re not going to make the gate.” After a bit of huffing she gave us the head warden’s phone number. We called and explained the situation. He was brilliant, told us not to worry and that he would let the gate know. Now we could relax a bit, but we still had the eles to deal with. After another 10 minutes they slowly, one by one, stepped off the road and made a pathway through. They seemed quite chilled so we inched forward past them. We were so close to the bull it was unnerving but we held our breaths, they stayed calm and got through them.
It was really quite dark now and we had to take it slowly. Lapwings, which usually kept in the grassland during the day, were all over the road and kept flying in front of us in the headlights. Fortunately we didn’t hit one and they were the only things we encountered. As we approached the camp at 5.50pm the warden was by his car waiting for us. He was really friendly and told us that if we were quick there were two lions in the road in front of the gate! And indeed there were. We saw their ghostly forms, so pale in the headlights, amble down the road ahead and disappear into the bush. Awesome. And yes, the warden was out of his car with a pair of lionesses a few tens of metres away… What a day.
We (or more accurately Angela) still hadn’t given up hope of seeing a Leopard and we were running out of days in the park. So we were up early again the next morning and headed up Leopard(less) Alley again. You guessed it. No Leopards. But as we turned down a side track towards the river there was a Lioness with two fairly mature cubs, a girl and a boy.
The two ‘cubs’
We watched them for half an hour, with NO other cars there – totally unheard of in Kruger. She was alert and on the lookout for food for her large but still dependent cubs. A Water Buck walked across the path behind her. She didn’t see it to start with but turned her head just as it disappeared into the bush. She immediately went into action and instead of following it she skirted round to the side to cut it off before it got to the river.
The female cub, who was more self-assured than the male, stood up and watched her go, following her for a short distance but still looking as if she felt slightly abandoned.
Mum, where are you?
We waited about 5 or 10 minutes for the mother who returned without her prize. They would go hungry for now. Then they all disappeared into the bush just as the first car arrived. “Have you seen anything?” they asked…
After tea and medals we drove down towards Crocodile Bridge and what would be our final night in Kruger. On our way we passed some birds that are one of the symbols of Africa – Lilac-breasted Rollers. Incredibly bright and colourful, we’ve rarely got a good shot of them as they are always on the move, hunting for insects and other prey. Seeing these two perched on a road sign was a bit of a bonus.
A few km before we got to camp we were stopped by another car. “Just a bit further ahead there’s a Lion in a tree”. “Sorry?”. “A lion in a tree.” “But lions don’t climb trees.” “This one does…”
And there she was, stood in a tree a little way from the road. She kept shifting around, half lying down, then getting up again, all the time panting and licking her lips. She looked incredibly uncomfortable and we assumed she’d been chased up there by hyenas or something, but we were later to learn that this was one of a local pride that were renowned for climbing trees. She was still there four hours later when we went out for an evening drive. Extraordinary.
Well, we’d been hoping to see a cat in a tree but we expected it to have spots…
When we got to the camp, we parked outside the gates where the office was located. Gareth went to check in while Angela headed off to find the ladies as she was getting a bit desperate for a wee. On the way she mentioned to another tourist about the lion in the tree. They briefly exchanged sightings and Angela mentioned that we hadn’t seen a Leopard yet. “Someone just told me that there are two in the tree next to the Mugg and Bean cafe. Right now.” “What? By the cafe? Now? You’re joking?!” “No, apparently they’re there right now.” It couldn’t be true. They were here, now, in broad daylight, sitting in a tree just as Angela had dreamed. We would finally get to see them properly in the day, not a fleeting glimpse but there, in front of us. But that’s what she’d said. Angela sprinted to Gareth who was still being signed in. “Leopards! By the cafe! NOW!” The woman behind the counter completely ignored Angela and the urgency of the situation and carried on as slowly as she possibly could. She was not going to be rushed. “I’ll see you there” said Gareth. Desperate as she was to see the Leopards, Angela was more desperate for a wee. “I’ll meet you outside”. And, rather like the receptionist, mother nature would also not be rushed. It must have been the longest pee in history. “Come on, come on! They’re going to be gone!” Eventually she made it out and we dashed through the gates into the camp, abandoning the car where it was. We looked around for the cafe but all we could find was a basic area selling light refreshments. “Where’s the Mugg and Bean cafe” we asked the attendant. “It’s at Lower Sabie camp”. Lower Sabie? It took a few moments to understand. Lower Sabie. The camp we’d stayed at last night. The Leopards were not here but 35 km and a 45 minute drive away. Even if they stayed put we didn’t have time to get up there and back before the gates closed, and in any case we were knackered. There would be no miracle ending to the Leopard dream. It was just not to be.
It was our final morning in Kruger. We had booked the car in for a service at Nelspruit and needed to be there for 10. That gave us time to drive through the park rather than get out onto the nearby, and faster, main road outside it. We made the most of our last few hours and were at the gates at dawn again. A few cars had already gone through ahead of us and about 500 metres in they were stopped. Lions. A whole pride of lions, ten of them, were crossing the road and heading down a side road, the one we were planning to take. We (and an increasing number of other cars) followed them. Then they peeled off into the grass and scrubland beside us. They were on the hunt. It was brilliant to watch them, the big females at the front doing the stalking and the rest of the family strung out loosely behind. The big male, his huge mane dark and shaggy, was ambling along near the back, occasionally tackled playfully by a young and exuberant male cub. The zebra and antelope went onto high alert and stayed well ahead of them, watching, now and then running, stopping and looking back. When the lions got too close they ran towards the cars to cross the road. At one point we thought we might hem them in but they were ok and got through. We followed the lions, catching glimpses of them through the bush, for about 10 minutes, then headed off on our way and left the rest to it.
On our way out we saw a few eles, zebra and antelope and got really close to one of the most common birds we had seen in the Kruger. The Brown Snake Eagle. As the name suggests, they hunt snakes and have a short tail so that they can quickly lean back out of the way of a strike. Rather like the Rollers, they were everywhere but we usually saw them in flight or maybe as they took off before we’d noticed them, so it was nice to get really close to this one.
We left the park and headed to the garage. We’d given Kruger a large chunk of our time but that was it. Time to move on. We’d had some amazing encounters and the odd disappointment. But one of the things that really summed up the park for us was the view from our last camp, Crocodile Bridge. It was right on the southern boundary of the park and the view beyond was such a contrast. On the Kruger side was grassland, scrub, trees, wildlife. On the other side was wall to wall agriculture and villages. And further round mining and towns. Humanity was knocking at the door of the park and the only thing protecting South Africa’s native wildlife, at least a large part of it, is the refuge that the Kruger and places like it give. The Kruger seems huge but when you consider the requirements of the animals it supports, especially the large herbivores and predators that are so associated with Africa, you’ve got to wonder, is it big enough and can it be protected from the advance of humanity around it?
Before we leave Kruger entirely, there are a couple of pics from a camp that we forgot to include in earlier blogs. They were both taken at Letaba, in the middle to north of the park. The first is from the Elephant Hall in the camp, a really impressive, informative, interesting if somewhat depressing museum which included the skulls and tusks of some of the biggest ‘Tuskers’ that have lived in the park. One of the “Magnificent Seven” (all with tusks that weighed over 50kg each), Shawu had the longest tusks ever recorded in the park. He is thought to have been over 60 year old when he died, (you’ll be pleased to hear of natural causes). Would have been something else to see him alive.
And on a slightly lighter note, most of the camps had resident wildlife that was pretty tame. Few can have been tamer than this Bushbuck ewe, which crept up right next to us one evening as we were having dinner. Apparently she had a penchant for ginger cookies… So we were told.