After Maroela, our next stop was Balule, a satellite camp outside Olifants. Melissa and I decided that we were going to head north via Sweni hide on the far eastern boundary of the park before heading up to check in at Olifants. We got a late start (5:30am wake up) and enjoyed listening to the bush sounds for a few minutes: the purring of an African Barred Owlet (Glaucidium capense), the faraway boom of a flock of Southern Ground Hornbills (Bucorvus leadbeateri) (which the people next to us thought was a lion), and the clear call of Senegal Lapwings (Vanellus lugubris). We got up and packed up our camp site as the sun rose. We headed out towards Satara along the tar road, stopping along the way to get even better views of Senegal Lapwings on the roadside as well as a single White Rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum), resting under a tree.
The next stretch was fairly quiet to begin with. We stopped to snap a few photos of some confiding Burchell’s Zebras (Equus quagga) before moving on. We had not driven more than 50 meters past the zebras when we heard another group of zebras making their characteristic braying calls. When we stopped to look around, a small clan of three Spotted Hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) walked out of the bush and began chasing the zebras, snapping at their heels repeatedly before backing off when the zebra stallion charged. The hyenas were making all sorts of vocalizations ranging from their usual whooping to an extremely low growly noise that we had never heard before. The hyenas were extremely excited with their tails curled up over their backs while frantically moving around the zebras. All of a sudden, the hyenas focused in on one bush, circling it over and over again. After a few seconds, a female Leopard (Panthera pardus) burst out of the bush, running off into the bush while being chased by both the hyenas and zebras. She luckily made her escape and eventually both the hyenas and zebras moved off. This was certainly one of the most exciting sightings of the entire trip with fascinating behaviors exhibited by all three species.
It was going to be hard to top our first sighting of the day but Kruger certainly gave us quite a few more gems as we continued east. We quickly found a beautiful pair of Great Spotted Cuckoos (Clamator glandarius), calling loudly in a tree, followed by a beautiful Pearl-spotted Owlet (Glaucidium perlatum). The Nwanetsi road provided us with some fantastic birds of prey beginning with a family of Verreaux’s Eagle-owl (Bubo lacteus). The two parents were sitting with their newly fledged chick in a large Marula tree. This was soon followed by our first Secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius) of a trip. Another highlight was a handful of Eurasian Hobbies (Falco subbuteo) flying over the road.
We arrived at Sweni hide just before midday. It is a beautiful place overlooking a natural (and seemingly permanent) rock pool. The hide was full of life as usual with a noisy flock of White-faced Whistling-duck (Dendrocygna viduata) loudly announcing the presence of each and every Nile Crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) that left the pool to sun. A perfect Yellow-billed Stork (Mycteria ibis) stood over a small corner of the pool, preening and making small noises. Water Thick-knees (Burhinus vermiculatus) called from the far side of the water along with a noisy pair of Blacksmith Lapwings (Vanellus armatus). It was a perfectly peaceful place for breakfast and a cup of coffee.
After the hide, we decided to go back towards Satara along the dirt road, hoping to spot some Lions (Panthera leo) along the way. By this point it was very hot. The birds had mostly gone quiet and the antelope were hiding in the shade of trees. However, despite all this, we soon came across a handsome male Lion, also resting under a tree. We watched him for a few minutes before continuing on. No more than five minutes later, we came across another set of Lions, two lionesses and three cubs. Our bet on the Lion road had certainly paid off! And now we were up to four of the Big 5! We just needed Cape Buffalo (Syncerus caffer). How hard could that be?
As we headed north, past Satara and towards Olifants, we realized just how hard finding a buffalo could be when there was nothing to graze on. There was not a blade of green grass along the whole drive and because of this, it was very quiet. In between long, quiet, hot stretches, we did find pockets of life. A single Kori Bustard (Ardeotis kori) crossed the road in front of us. A water point held dozens of vultures including a couple Lappet-faced (Torgos tracheliotus) and White-headed Vultures (Trigonoceps occipitalis). Another welcome distraction came in the form of a single Black Stork (Ciconia nigra) perched in a dead tree, always a nice find. We arrived at Olifants at about 2:00pm and quickly went to the front desk, particularly to confirm our walk for the next day. After being told on the phone when booking the walk that we should tell the front desk that we wanted to look for the Pel’s Fishing-owl (Scotopelia peli), we were told by the front desk that we should have confirmed on the phone. They said that they could not make promises that we could go to the Pel’s spot and so we walked away a little concerned about whether we would even get a crack at the owl that had so long eluded us.
We arrived at Balule in peak heat. It is a tiny camp situated on the banks of the Olifants with a handful of chalets and about 20 campsites. There is no electricity which we hoped would make for an even quieter night. We set up under the shade of a couple small trees and enjoyed a Savanna cider while we waited out the heat. Luckily, there was plenty to look at, a vocal White-browed Robin-chat (Cossypha heuglini) on the single patch of irrigated lawn in the middle of the camp, a couple Green-winged Pytilias (Pytilia melba) hopping in the brush outside the fence, and perhaps best of all, a group of Brown-headed Parrots (Poicephalus cryptoxanthus) that perched in the trees over our campsite.
As the sun dropped and the heat dissipated, we headed back out across the incredible Balule low-water bridge. The river was full of life and we picked up some new species for our atlas card and trip list. A single Curlew Sandpiper (Calidris ferruginea) flew across the bridge and went to feed close to the water. There were Yellow-billed and Saddle-billed (Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis) Storks stalking through the shallows. Multiple Green-backed Herons (Butorides striata) perched on snags overlooking small rapids and watched hopefully for a fish to come their way. We pulled ourselves away and headed for the Olifants high-water bridge where we picked up a few more shorebirds including Common Greenshank (Tringa nebularia) and Wood Sandpiper (Tringa glareola). Melissa spent her time attempting to photograph the Little Swifts (Apus affinis) that were nesting under the bridge and succeeding in getting several beautiful, sharp shots. As gate time approached, we left the bridge and made our way back towards Balule. The bush was very quiet (although we did pick up another nice Pearl-spotted Owlet) and so, we arrived back sooner than expected. Naturally, we did one more pass across the low-water bridge in the hopes of picking up a White-backed Night-heron (Gorsachius leuconotus). The night-herons were not around but we did find a single Greater-painted Snipe (Rostratula benghalensis), always nice to see. We returned to the campsite and were met with a single Spotted Hyena walking around the roadside. Later in the evening, we learned that the hyena must be a regular as he looked at our braai longingly from the other side of the fence. Our last bird of the day was a screeching Barn Owl (Tyto alba) that flew over our camp. Sadly, we never found our Cape Buffalo but a wonderful day nonetheless.
The next morning, we woke up before sunrise in anticipation of our walk. Square-tailed (Caprimulgus fossii) and Rufous-cheeked Nightjars (Caprimulgus rufigena) whirled overhead, calling. The trees were alive with the calls of Lesser-masked Weavers (Ploceus intermedius) and the White-browed Robin-chat was already singing. The guides arrived and picked us up. Funny enough, we drove less than a kilometer from our camp along the river before the guides stopped, loaded their rifles, and let us and the two Germans who were joining us out of the vehicle. The guides, Vuzi and Wonderful, gave us the usual speech about not running if we see an animal and about staying quiet in the bush if we wanted to see any animals at all. At the end, Vuzi asked “Who is here to see the Pel’s?”. Melissa and I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that at least we were in the right spot.
White-fronted Bee-eaters (Merops bullockoides) flew around us as we walked along the river. Within about 100 meters, we had the first major find of the walk, a gorgeous pair of White-backed Night-herons. They flew across and into a dense tree where Melissa managed a photo of their bellies but sadly not their faces. We continued walking and entered a patch of enormous riverine trees. We all peered up into the canopies, hoping for a pair of big black eyes to look back at us. Soon enough, we struck gold, or rather ginger. A single enormous Pel’s Fishing-owl burst out of tree and flew along, pausing for a moment on a relatively open branch. The sighting was brief but clear, and the bird was beautiful, moving through on its enormous orange wings. We had gotten what we were looking for and from there the mood of the walk relaxed. We continued on spotting Leopard tracks along our path, and beady-eyed Nile Crocodiles and Hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius) in the river. We got lucky enough to see a Verreaux’s Eagle-owl and another Pel’s Fishing-owl. Not bad for a morning. We even saw a pair of Temminck’s Coursers (Cursorius temminckii), running in a bare patch. It was definitely a morning we will remember forever.
We returned back to Balule, exhausted but elated, and went for a quick breakfast at the main camp. The wind was howling and the raptors were taking advantage. A single Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) soared by us as we ate, and multiple Yellow-billed Kites (Milvus aegyptius) danced in the breeze. Having found our targets, we decided to take it easy for the rest of the day but we did find an Olive-tree Warbler (Hippolais olivetorum) knocking around the camp. We loafed around camp until about 3:00pm before driving towards a viewpoint along the river. While on our drive, a hornbill flew across the road which prompted an argument between Melissa and me about what species it was. We were so busy arguing that we nearly missed the pack of three African Wild Dogs (Lycaon pictus) sleeping on the side of the road. The dogs were only two or three meters from the road under a small tree, sleeping. We sat entranced as their paws twitched in their sleep. African Wild Dogs are one of Africa’s most endangered carnivores with approximately 5,000 individuals left in the wild. They are highly social animals with a strict pack hierarchy topped by an alpha pair. Sadly, they are extremely vulnerable to snares set by poachers to catch game which has caused a decline across the sub-region.
After our dogs, we headed out to the most beautiful view point over the river, stopping for a cute pair of Little Bee-eaters (Merops pusillus) on the way. Due to the dryness of the surrounding area, there was a nice concentration of game including a herd of Kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros) as well as Giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis). We then returned to the wild dog, which had increased to a pack of four, and spent another thirty minutes with them before heading home again. We had a fabulous braai and enjoyed the huge concentration of nightjars swooping over. By twilight, the Barn Owls, a family of three, were back. We fell asleep looking forward to our long northwards drive to Shingwedzi via some of our favorite places, Letaba and Mopani.