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50 hours in the Kruger National Park


pomkiwi

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pomkiwi

I need to start this brief report with an apology - the events described happened in early June 2018 and it has taken me this long to reach for my keyboard......

Those with long memories may recall that I posted a report of a short trip to the Madikwe last May. I went from there to a conference and then flew up to Skukuza via Johannesburg very early on the Saturday before heading back to London on the Monday afternoon. As I didn't have long I based myself in Skukuza camp which turned out to be a good decision I think.

For those unfamiliar I will discuss some of the logistics in the next post and then cover a few of the interesting sightings which included lots of elephants, quite a lot of giraffes, some rhinos and a pair of wild dogs as the highlights.

 

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pomkiwi

Planning and Practicalities

The decision was made to arrange this short trip about 2 months beforehand. The flights were the fixed limits - arriving into Skukuza around midday on a Saturday and leaving around 2pm on Monday. This meant that exploration would need to be in the southern portion of the park and after a quick confirmation that Lower Sabie (regarded by most Kruger regulars as an excellent choice) was predictably fully booked I decided that 2 nights at Skukuza had something to recommend it. In favour was some good availability, no need to pack and unpack on Sunday, good access to some popular and productive roads and options for eating as I wouldn't be self catering. Against was mainly the size of the camp and a distinct lack of wilderness feel. In the end my desire for simplicity won out and I was lucky to get a river front unit. The SanParks website was very easy to use with availability clear and a simple booking process.

My flight from Durban left at 6.30am which meant leaving the city at 4.30am (a 'safari start' without the safari benefit). All weant smoothly and after breakfast at Johannesburg airrport I arrived at Skukuza at 11.30.

 

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For those who haven't been, Skukuza airport is a delight - cool, clean and well organised. My car was not ready (has anyone ever picked up a car on time in South Africa?) but the excuse was original - my reserved car was destrpyed in a hail storm earlier that week and they had to get another from the camp.... Anyway that left me time to complete the Park registration which took 5 minutes with a friendly ranger and by midday I was off on my first drive through to the rest camp. 

I was able to stock up on some lunch to eat in the car and complete the registration for my accommodation early which saved time later when I could just collect my key from a basket and avoid the queue.

Then it was off in a generally northerly direction...

Edited by pomkiwi
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pomkiwi

I will try not to get into too much detail. There are lots of guides both printed and online that recommend specific roads to follow. I did pick up one of the detailed maps from the shop but mainly to keep an eye on distances and thus times to ensure I was back before the gate shut. There is also an App (Latest Sightings) which is good for telling you where animals were - but there is no guarantee where they will be when you get there of course. I didn't try and chase the sightings but did plan a drive on my second day alsong a couple of roads where a family of cheetah were often sighted (with no joy). 

My drive started with challenging light:

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I had a close encounter with a lilac breasted roller:

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I pulled off onto a short loop by a largely dry waterhole and enjoyed lunch in the car surrounded by a herd of waterbuck:

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I was using a D500 with an 80-400mm lens which generally worked well - to be honest on the occasions that the reach was not enough the distance and atmospheric conditions were such that it was best to enjoy the sighting from afar rather than try and record it in any event.  Clearly the inability to approach sightings off road can be frustrating but I found it was just as interesting to view the animals in their wider environment and not necessarily be searching for a portrait view.

 

After lunch I drove for 2 hours without seeing another car (and had only seen 2 in the previous 90 minutes). I don't generally mind my own company and wasn't bothered until a little later on....

 

A family of monkeys were grooming in the shade of some roadside trees:

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I saw the first of quite a few southern ground hornbills:

 

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Then the elephants. Firstly a small group comfortably in the distance moved through the bush:

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Then the only time I started to feel somewhat alone and a little vulnerable. I was driving along a gravel road at least 40 minuts from any camp or rest area and without phone signal when I saw a group of elphants in the distance.  They were moving up and over some rocky outcrops:

 

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What was not immediately apparent was how many more there were not just behind the rocks but spread out widely to either side. They were also moving steadily in the direction of my car:

 

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At no stage was there any suggestion they were deliberately headed towards me but I didn't really fancy ending up in the way of what I guessed to be between 80 and 100 large mammals and rather reluctantly decided that I neede to move away.

 

The rest of the afternoon slipped away uneventfully although I was pleased that I had left time to enjoy a closer encounter with a couple of elephants 5 minutes away from Skukuza as the sun slipped away (feeling a bit braver as there were two other cars there - and the elephants were headed away :))

 

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The closed to a selfie I'm likely to post on ST. It also illustrates the main problem with self driving in the Kruger rather than being in an open vehicle - it can be very difficult to get a good angle even when (as was often the case for me) you are lucky enoough to have few other vehicle around.

 

It was then back to camp where I unpacked the car and had a reasonable (if not very cheap) steak for dinner.  I played around taking some not very good sky photos.

 

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Edited by pomkiwi
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2 hours ago, pomkiwi said:

My car was not ready (has anyone ever picked up a car on time in South Africa?) ...

 

I don't know...we have been travelling to ZA for 14 years; I'd estimate at least 20 different trips, all self drive and as far as I remember I have never ever had any problems with picking up a rental car on time. However, we have always rented straight from Jo'burg airport.

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pomkiwi

I got myself out of bed around 5.15 - it always feels worse to do this to yourself rather than be woken by a knock on your door accompanied by a jug of coffee...

My initial plan for the day was to drive along to the Lower Sabie camp for breakfast and head south to Crocodile Bridge as there had been lots of sightings of a large family of cheetah in that area. Although it was a quiet weekend I found that the sealed roads were often quite busy and got tired of being overtaken by those speeding on for no obvious reason. My irritation was greatly lessened by making use of the frequent gravel loops that leave that road and diverting onto gravel routes wherever possible. That made it easier to slow right down and improved the chance of a solo driver spotting rather more.

 

The Sabie River was at its best first thing:

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A thin mist added to the charm:

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An old buffalo bull was not tempted to join me in my early start:

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I stopped at a picnic area and disturned a troop of baboons who had been enjoying sole occupancy:

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It was then an uneventful drive to Sunset Dam where there were a large tower of giraffe on the far bank:

 

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Hippos cruised around with the usual passengers:

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It was the first time I recall seeing ayellow billed stork:

 

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There were some very big crocodiles in the distance but my attempts to photograph them were foiled by the distance and glare from their wet skin.  The giraffes moved off and heade to the camp for breakfast.

 

Edited by pomkiwi
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shazdwn

I'm enjoying your report so far and looking forward to the rest.  thanks

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pomkiwi

Breakfast in Lower Sabie was a relaxing affair outside looking over the river in the sunshine. Then I headed off  south with the aim of eventually arriving at the location where the cheetahs had been sighted near Crocodile River.  Just out of the camp I saw a large group of elephants crossing the river below me - fortunately moving away!

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The youngsters were closely watched by the adults, crossing quickly and moving up into the trees

 

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A few of the adolescents seemed keen to stay and play in the water

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A number of cars pulled in around me to share the sighting and when we untangled ourselves it was only a few minutes before we stopped again to share someone elses sighing of a fish eagle.

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I then spent a fairly unproductive hour along some gravel roads and visiting a hide as it got hotter. Shortly after joining the road I saw a crash of rhino in the distance:

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Finally I stopped with 2 other cars and one occupant kindly told me of a lion lying under a bush (one of a small pride apparently). This cropped image of a head using the 400mm lens was my only lion sighting of the short trip:

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An unsuccessful search for the cheetahs followed and then I headed to the Crocodile River camp to buy some lunch in the shop.

 

At this point I made my only major error of the visit in deciding not to follow the river and then loop up to Skukuza but rather the drive north (still hoping for cheetahs) and then use gravel roads to head west and north. 

 

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Edited by pomkiwi
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Great report pomkiwi - it seems that you saw quite a bit in two days.  The rhinos alone (for me) would have made this worth while.  Re. post number three - I would have been a bit nervous at the prospect of being in the middle of all those elephants without a guide and it seems like it was a good decision to move off.  I am looking forward to more.

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Dave Williams

I'm lapping every detail as we are heading that way later in the year. You have already posted shots of 2 of my 3 target birds too so I'm optimistic I might see them too as I have longer to look! Someone on TA recommended the Kruger sightings App and I may well download it purely to avoid the crowds rather than join them. You mention the hide you visited , but no further comment. No good?

Must admit the prospect of running in to a huge herd of Elephant is scary, I was a bit unnerved when I came across just the one that wanted to cross the road were I was parked in Etosha.You definitely feel like a sardine when you have a big tusker down to 30 feet!

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pomkiwi

@Dave Williams Thank-you. It was a good couple of days on the whole. The hide I went to was the Nthandanyathi hide just off the S28. It is set quite a long way above the water and was very quiet for the 40 minutes or so I was there, it was around 11am and already very hot. There was rather more to see at the Sunset Dam if you were patient.

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Dave Williams

I have just realised I'm not only booked in to the south of the park during the school holidays but it's heritage week too. Apparently it can get manic as its free entry.I totally misread the holidays as being that I was there for the first week they were back in school. Had I known I would have gone earlier but too late now as the flights are booked and non refundable.

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pomkiwi

From Crocodile Bridge I went north on the N4-2 and headed west on the H5.It was very hot and sunny by now and the terrain generally dry and dusty. Game was sparse and the cheetahs were clearly having a lazy day somewhere else. I saw one elephant close to the road that was clearly hoping to become as famous as one from the Mana Pools:

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This photo shows a couple of the limitations of self-driving in the national park - it is difficult to get the car into a good position and then equally difficult to get camera and lens in an ideal spot. On theother hand you go where you want and stop as long as you wish if something grabs your fancy. It was quite quiet at times as I was in the car alone!

Further on a tawny eagle circled and landed close to the road - I never saw why.

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After a little further I turned to the Mpondo dam where a few hippos were cruising around but completely failing to do anything more exciting:

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It then remained very quiet. A large hyena dozed under a bush but the only angle I could get was through the windscreen which wasn't much use. A steenbok however was very relaxed and it was nice to get a proper portrait rather than a rump disappearing into the bush:

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I ten cruised up and down the H1 to no great purpose but did get to see a peacful giraffe completely on my own when exploring on of the gavel loops whilst traffic sped past 10m away completely oblivious:

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Then it was back to Skukuza with a beautiful sunset behind the trees:

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Before dinner I took my night photography to a new level with some light painting:

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I won't be leaving the day job though!

An early dinner was followed by 5 minutes of packing to make sure I could throw everything into the car and be off by 6am tomorrow.

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pomkiwi

@Dave Williams It's a shame that you got a holiday week. My experience was that although the main tarmac roads were sometimes busy, it was surprising how few people seemed to venture onto the gravel/sand roads. I'm sure that with a bit of route planning and maybe not following the sightings of big cats you should be able to find some peace and quiet. The only other hint I would give is to try and shop in the middle of the day if buying food etc as it gets very busy between 5.30 and 7pm. Book restaurants early if you are not self-catering.

Good luck!

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Dave Williams

@pomkiwi  Great tip about the shopping, should fit in with my plan of popping out of the park too.Can't decide if I'm better off having my 500 or 600f4  lens. Heat haze can murder the shot anyway and the 600 is a bit bulky and awkward when sitting behind the drivers wheel, there again reach can be important for birding. I'm taking my 100-400 for larger mammals.

The Steenbok shot is lovely, what was that taken with ?

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pomkiwi

@Dave Williams Thank-you for your comments. The Steenbok was taken with my Nikon d500, paired with the 80-400mm @ 340mm. ISO200, f/5.6, 1/400 sec. Can't add much specific advice about lenses I'm afraid except that I was pleased I had nothing bigger than my 80-400 inside the car (a mid size SUV). Obviously if you are planning to spend a lot of time in the various hides that isn't an issue.

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Ritsgaai

You had some lovely sightings, @pomkiwi and I believe even a short visit to the Kruger is better than no visit :wub: and can be very rewarding. Good for you making the effort. 

 

The Steenbok portrait is beautiful. I also like the giraffe showing itself full length against a lovely background. 

 

@Dave Williams, I believe the Department of Education made a few major changes regarding our school holidays rather late last year. :(:o 

 

We're having the same dilemma, as we are booked for a trip through the Namib Desert during the April school holidays. Our 3 sons with their families will be joining us. Our grandchildren are now going to miss more than a week of the  new term as the dates got changed late last year. Bookings and payments were already done in June last year. 

 

 

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1 hour ago, Ritsgaai said:

You had some lovely sightings, @pomkiwi and I believe even a short visit to the Kruger is better than no visit :wub: and can be very rewarding. Good for you making the effort. 

 

The Steenbok portrait is beautiful. I also like the giraffe showing itself full length against a lovely background. 

 

@Dave Williams, I believe the Department of Education made a few major changes regarding our school holidays rather late last year. :(:o 

 

We're having the same dilemma, as we are booked for a trip through the Namib Desert during the April school holidays. Our 3 sons with their families will be joining us. Our grandchildren are now going to miss more than a week of the  new term as the dates got changed late last year. Bookings and payments were already done in June last year. 

 

 

 

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IMHO, the safari experience for the grandchildren will be of far more value than

the lessons missed. Spending that special time with grandparents, parents, 

aunts, uncles and each other on a glorious and exciting adventure will be a

lifetime memory. 

 

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pomkiwi

My last morning was colder and quite windy. I threw my things into the car, left the key in the box and headed off at 6am as the gate opened.  The plan was to go east towards Lower sabre but turn north onto a gravel road after a few km. Wherever possible I used the gravel loops off of the main road which were again quiet. Monkeys and impalas co=existed peacefully (it was still quite dark so apologies for the high ISO image):

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I found my self behind another vehicle headed north (never great on a gravel road) and so stopped for a few minutes. As I set off a pair of wild dogs ran out in front of me - I have never been quite as grateful to be driving slowly as I slid to a halt:

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They moved up the road which made getting good photos difficult. I followed and then they ran up into the bush. I stopped and waited and a minute later a waterbuck dashed over the road into thick bush towards the river followed closely by the dogs. It was impossible to follow and so I headed on.

 

A male impala was in a frisky mood:

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I then witnessed a whole group pronging - I think either to avoid the ram or just in response to the high wind:

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The rest of the morning (about 3 hours) was very quiet with a couple of zebras and a family of ground hornbills in thick grass. I got a nice portrait of an impala ram:

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as well as a lonely elephant crossing the river:

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I drove past the area where I had seen the dogs and the presence of large numbers of vultures circling and in the river bed in the distance suggested they had been successful in their hunt

 

That was about it and I headed back to the airport reflecting on how a single short sighting, such as that of the dogs, can make an otherwise quiet drive exciting in retrospect. It was a good short trip to the Kruger and I enjoyed the freedom and the varied geography. As a solo traveller though I feel that the commercial lodges and camps offer an easier experience as well as company and that is where I will probably continue to head when I return to Africa.

Edited by pomkiwi
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Tom Kellie

DSC_5266.jpg.5875b8ba414aa4c03fdb30f9c4b36e74.jpg.75590565b092bd35d928311527bdee04.jpg  DSC_5313.jpg.6a932dc97992dd5d5ac4da0a1a41926c.jpg.a020289586c051628d16adba46caa1ac.jpg  DSC_5339.jpg.43c9207b00141ce0db159e75d25f5998.jpg.835ee417e98504520c3738358fc6ce26.jpg  DSC_5300.jpg.a3dc27ba27f7a1d9d0c3eefc62d5c2ac.jpg.7c5d1c32bfab4f9bab0281fd8da98e5c.jpg  

 

 

~ @pomkiwi

 

Your trip report is taking me back. The descriptions and photos restore very pleasant memories.

 

The steenbok portrait is lovely. Ha! That's the very image I sought but it was waiting for your lens.

 

The wild dog on the track is a classic image. I'm so glad that your timing was such that you saw it.

 

Who knew that impala trained for ballet? What a terrific action image!

 

Ah... Stars above Kruger. Two images you posted of the night sky both tugged at my heart.

 

South African wilderness is so precious. Your trip report captures that reality.

 

Thank you for preparing and posting this trip report. I enjoyed it immensely.

 

Tom K.

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pomkiwi

@Tom Kellie Thank-you for your kind words. I was very lucky in my couple of days especially with the dogs who very nearly ran under my wheels. One of them was collared which made me wonder if they had once been part of a bigger pack.

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  • 3 weeks later...
FlyTraveler

Such a good example of how it is better to go on safari even for 50 hours than not to go at all... Great sightings for a solo self-drive, @pomkiwi! Thanks for sharing!

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