After a fabulous time in Balule, it was time for us to head north to Shingwedzi where we would be staying for the next few nights. Although it was a relatively long drive north, we had plenty to look forward to including Letaba and Mopani camps as well as Mooiplaas waterhole, one of my favorite places in the park. We woke up to a particularly grey day and quickly packed up our campsite. It turned out that we had packed up just in time! Within five minutes of us getting into the bakkie, it was pouring rain. Feeling a little despondent about the weather, we got onto the H1 and headed north.
The rain ended up being short-lived although the clouds stuck around for the whole day and our drive to Letaba in the hopes of a coffee provided some good sightings. We had a small family of Lions (Panthera leo), two adults and two cubs, huddled on the side of the road. They were clearly as displeased with the wet weather as we were. The Lions were overshadowed by four Black-crowned Tchagras (Tchagra senegalus). Two of the birds were sitting in the road and dancing. They kept swirling their tails around while circling each other and calling. The four appeared to make up two pairs, perhaps fighting cementing a territory boundary. You can see the video at this link (https://www.facebook.com/mwhitecrossnaturephotography/videos/1997417243815569/)
When we arrived at Letaba, we were immediately disappointed. It was only 6:15am and the restaurant, otherwise known as the source of coffee, was not yet open. However, it was still lucky that we stopped as when we walked back to the car, Melissa immediately noticed that one of the tires was looking a bit soft. We headed to the petrol station, pumping the tire, and drove to the campsite to get hot water to make our own cup of coffee. The tire looked low again. Now, we had to find the puncture and hope that it was in a fixable place. Melissa poured water on the tire and we quickly found the leak on the tread of the tire. That part was easy! However, the location of the puncture meant that we could not get the plug into the hole due to the angle. So the tire had to come off but the bolts were so tight that neither Melissa nor any of the helpful strangers in Letaba nor the petrol attendant could get them off. Now, we were beginning to worry but the petrol attendant told us that we should go to the emergency services garage down one of the nearby no entry roads. So, we headed there. It was the best decision! The garage workers took the tire off, fixed the leak, checked the tire, and put it back on in about fifteen minutes and all for the fantastic price of 85 rand! And so, we filled up our thermos with hot water, and headed to the Matambeni bird hide.
The Mantambeni hide overlooks Engelhardt Dam along the Letaba River. Earlier in the year, it held a pair of African Skimmers (Rynchops flavirostris) who successfully raised two chicks. This is one of the few recent breeding records of this species in South Africa. The birds had since moved on as the river rose with summer rains. Even though the skimmers were gone, there was still good viewing to be had. The water was filled with Hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius) and Nile Crocodiles (Crocodylus niloticus). Water Thick-knees (Burhinus vermiculatus) and Blacksmith Lapwings (Vanellus armatus) patrolled the bank. A little White-bellied Sunbird (Cinnyris talatala) fed in the bushes right in front of the hide. And best of all, we got some distant views of two Collared Pratincoles (Glareola pratincola), a species we had not seen for over two years! To add to the sightings at the hide, we also spotted a single juvenile oriole which after much debate, we identified as another Eurasian Golden Oriole (Oriolus oriolus).
Letaba is the gateway to the northern part of the park. The Mopane (Colophospermum mopane) takes over and the drive along the car can feel very monotonous with seemingly little variation in habitat and very little life. These long sections are often punctuated with little bits of excitement. We had our first enormous herd of Cape Buffalo (Syncerus caffer) complete with Yellow-billed (Buphagus africanus) and Red-billed (Buphagus erythrorhynchus) Oxpeckers cross the road in front of us. These massive herds are a hallmark of northern Kruger. Further on, we spotted a Black-backed Jackal (Canis mesomelas) in combat with a large beetle on the road. The jackal would try to eat the beetle who was either biting or spraying a noxious chemical at the jackal. Eventually, the jackal dropped the beetle and ran away into the veld. Middelvlei waterhole was full of life. There were many African Elephants (Loxodonta africana) coming for a drink as well as Burchell’s Zebra (Equus quagga) and our first Common Ostrich (Struthio camelus) of the trip. Desert Cisticola (Cisticola aridulus) was displaying and two Common Buttonquails (Turnix sylvaticus) scuttled into the grass.
Melissa and I were getting tired of the tar and had always had good luck on the Nshawu road, so we decided to take a short detour. We quickly found that the river and its waterholes were disappointingly dry. We continued on the road for another few kilometres before another car stopped to chat to us. The man in the car saw Melissa’s BirdLife hat and got excited. He informed us that he thought he had seen an Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus) and showed us a picture. Sure enough, on his screen, there was the juvenile Egyptian Vulture that had been calling Kruger home for the last several months. And when and where did he see it? Fifteen minutes earlier and approximately five kilometres away at the Nshawu No. 3 waterhole with a whole flock of vultures on a Cape Buffalo carcass. We drove there in what felt like the longest ten minutes of my life. As we arrived, we could see a huge flock of vultures as well as six Black-backed Jackals, all fighting over access to the carcass. We started scanning the birds for the Egyptian Vulture and within 30 seconds, we had picked it out. I can’t remember the last time I felt so excited to see a bird! We watched as the bird moved around restlessly, never getting very close to the carcass. It was chased by an aggressive sub-adult White-headed Vulture (Trigonoceps occipitalis) but besides this, it seemed pretty content to stay. As we scanned the flock, we ended up with a total of six vulture species, Lappet-faced (Torgos tracheliotos), White-headed, Cape (Gyps coprotheres), White-backed (Gyps africanus), Hooded (Necrosyrtes monachus), and Egyptian. At one point, the Egyptian Vulture actually stood next to the Hooded Vulture allowing for a good comparison look. And as if that was not enough, we also had a flyover by a female Pallid Harrier (Circus macrourus) and a group of anxious Tsessebe (Damaliscus lunatus) watching us. Satisfied with our views, we drove to Mopani for a celebratory lunch and Savanna, stopping briefly at Mooiplaas to admire some elephants and a Martial Eagle (Polemaetus bellicosus).
Mopani was beautiful as usual. The camp overlooks the enormous Pioneer Dam which has hosted some interesting birds including African Skimmer, Pallid Harrier, and White-backed Night-heron (Gorsachius leuconotus). Today, it was quiet but we did manage our first African Jacana (Acrophilornis africanus) and Southern Carmine Bee-eater (Merops nubicoides) of the trip. After a delicious lunch, we drove the final 65 kilometres to Shingwedzi and set up camp. The campsite was quiet except for the calls of the numerous Greater Blue-eared Starlings (Lamprotornis chalybaeus) and African Mourning Doves (Streptopelia decipiens). We got another bird for the trip list in the form of Common Myna (Acridotheres tristis), not a bird you want to see in the park.
We went for a very quick drive in the evening, crossing over the Shingwedzi low water bridge (which held basically no water). The best sighting on that road was a flock of four Double-banded Sandgrouse (Pterocles bicinctus). Each species of sandgrouse has its own drinking patterns either in the evening or the morning. For instance, Namaqua Sandgrouse (Pterocles namaqua), a special of arid southern Africa, drinks almost exclusively in the morning. The Double-banded Sandgrouse, on the other hand, is an evening drinker and so it is not uncommon to see them on roadside verges in the evening as they venture out for a drink. The other highlight of the drive was a den of Spotted Hyenas (Crocuta crocuta). One of the females of the clan was nursing her still black cubs at the entrance to the den. Spotted Hyenas produce the highest fat milk of any terrestrial carnivore and nurse their cubs for up to 18 months. These cubs were likely to be under three months old as they had not yet developed their spots. They still have a long time of depending on their mother! After enjoying the hyenas, Melissa and I had sundowners on the bridge with Laurence Kruger, the program director of the Organization for Tropical Studies (the ecology program that both Melissa and I participated in six years before). It was the perfect way to end off an epic day of driving.
Melissa and I drove back to camp, just making gate time, and settled into our camping chairs facing the fence. We quickly noticed that a large number of Impala (Aepyceros melampus) were snorting and stamping in the same general direction. We didn’t pay too much attention at first but after a few minutes of snorting, we decided to investigate. After quite a lot of scanning around, I looked into the bushes on the fence line about fifteen meters away. As I did, something large and predatory stared back. It was a Leopard and upon seeing Melissa and I looking at it, it ran off through a gate and into the staff camp. We thought this was the end of it but about 30 minutes later, Melissa picked it up again as it (well now we knew it was a she) walked along the fence. Melissa and I ended up picking up a crowd of about 20 people as we strolled along the fence watching the Leopard (Panthera pardus) and finally saw it disappearing into the bush. This was absolutely the cherry on top of a fabulous day.
Once again, we woke up early and left by the time the gate opened. It was supposed to be hot, a scorching 35’C, and we still wanted to get a good drive in. The drive started out with us spending some time with the local Spotted Hyenas. This time there were cubs of two different ages, the small black cubs from the day before and a slightly older spotted cub who was wrestling with his mother. After enjoying the hyenas, we were southward bound. We drove another couple of kilometres before Melissa spotted a Honey Badger (Mellivora capensis) . The badger was close to the road and completely minding his own business, unperturbed by our presence. He would run a few steps before smelling and digging. When he dug, he would use his head as a prop to free up his claws. We watched him for about 45 minutes as he fed on underground invertebrates before he crossed the road no more than three meters from our car and trotted further into the bush on the other side. Definitely another wildlife highlight.
From the Honey Badger, we headed out towards Red Rocks, a long loop to the west of the main tar road. It features beautiful riverine habitat and unique geology. The route to the Red Rocks lookout point was relatively quiet. We saw our first Nyala (Tragelaphus angasii) of the trip and another group of very tame Dwarf Mongoose (Helogale parvula). On the bird front, there were numerous Cinnamon-breasted Buntings (Emberiza tahapisi), Greater Blue-eared Starlings, and White-browed Scrub-robins (Cercotrichas leucophrys). As we crossed the river to get the lookout for breakfast, we found a stunning baby Little Bee-eater (Merops pusillus) who was being continually fed by one of its parents. The Red Rocks lookout was beautiful as always. It overlooks an enormous sandstone slab and a small permanent water pool. As we got out, we flushed two Black Storks (Ciconia nigra) which had been feeding in the water below. The most common bird there was far and away the White-fronted Bee-eater (Merops bullockoides). The birds must have been nesting in the cliffs that were were standing on top of. Their whiny calls filled the air as we ate our breakfast over the savanna.
From the lookout, we headed to Tshanga lookout point at the far end of the loop. Tshaga is perhaps one of the most beautiful and isolated parts of publicly-accessible Kruger. It is a small koppie (a rocky hill) that overlooks the savanna including a river. We could see African Elephants, Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis), and Cape Buffalo as we looked out into the distance there. Birdwise, it was silent except for a single Klaas’s Cuckoo (Chrysococcyx klaas), sitting in one of the trees and singing his repetitive monkey call. By now, it was already getting hot and so we decided to head back to camp. The drive back was uneventful except for a grumpy elephant that decided to trumpet and mock charge us and a more docile Slender Mongoose (Galerella sanguinea) slinking into a bush close to the road. And a gorgeous group of magnificent Southern Ground Hornbills (Bucorvus leadbeateri).
By the time we got back to camp, it was really really hot and sticky and so we decided to go for a swim. We debated about bringing binoculars with us to the pool but decided that it could come across as a little creepy and so we left them behind. What a mistake! We had a pair of Bennett’s Woodpeckers (Campethera bennettii) displaying in the tree at the pool along with a supporting cast of Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills (Tockus leucomelas) and Greater Blue-eared Starlings. Post-swim, we decided to find a shady tree to sit under along the Shingwedzi River. Sadly, due to the enormous floods in 2013, there are very few trees left along the river to sit under. We eventually found the one shady spot with a clear view to the water and waited to see what would come around. We had a Grey-headed Kingfisher (Halcyon leucocephala) bomb past there as well as a brief flyby by a Bateleur (Terathopius ecaudatus) . At the water, there was a single White-backed Vulture that sat with its wings extended and its head drooped down on its chest. He looked like we felt. A few Burchell’s Zebra and Impala came down to drink as well.
As the heat began to break, we headed for the low water bridge where we found a Blacksmith Lapwing pool party. There were over 20 of them bathing in a tiny pool. On the other side of the road, a Water Monitor (Varanus niloticus) slunk out of the water for a bask and a Giant Kingfisher (Mehaceryle maxima) sat in a shady spot with an fish twice the size of his own bill. A water point to the north of the camp provided us with another new mammal for the trip, a mother Eland (Taurotragus oryx) and her calf, an uncommon antelope for the park. By 5:00pm, we were back at the highwater bridge, enjoying the Spotted Hyenas mud bathing below us. After sitting for a few minutes, we once again heard the impalas snorting loudly. At first, we thought that they had spotted the hyena. But as I scanned the bank, I spotted a female Leopard making her way along the steep banks. She seemed to be coming for a drink before spotting the hyena in the pool and moving along to a shady bush where she collapsed and began to bathe herself. We stayed with her until we had to return to camp before gate close. Shingwedzi is definitely land of Leopards! The next day we were headed north to Punda Maria, the northernmost camp in Kruger and perhaps the birdiest as well.