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Kruger and Sabi Sands - a safari of elephants and leopards (and much else)


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Posted (edited)

Introduction and Practicalities


In mid-November 2024 my son and I met in South Africa to spend time together in the Kruger National Park and then Rattrays Camp, Mala Mala in the Sabi Sands. Matt lives in Australia and I live in the UK. He had not been to Africa since he was 16 and was happy to see and photograph everything - including 'cheetahs, aardvarks and pangolin' - nothing like ambition.....


The plan was for Matt to fly from Australia to Johannesburg via Singapore, arriving in the early morning where I would meet him having arrived the previous evening from Birmingham, via Frankfurt (for some reason this routing is usually considerably cheaper than flying direct from London). Later that morning we flew up to Skukuza with Airlink and rented a car for 3 days. 


We reserved accommodation in Satara for 2 nights and Lower Sabie for one night before returning to Skukuza to meet with a driver from Rattrays in the late morning.

We had 4 nights at Rattrays before returning to Johannesburg via Skukuza and after an overnight stay there departed to opposite sides of the globe.


I arranged all the travel and accommodation myself. The SANParks website was very easy to negotiate and after some coming and going I was able to confirm a twin bedded room at Rattrays and a pick up despite already being in the park.


I took my Nikon Z9 with a 100-400 lens +/- 1.4 TC with a Z6ii and 24-70 for scenic shots. In practice the TC remained on my 100-400 almost permanently. Matt had a D500 with 100-400 zoom but immediately 'borrowed' my PF500 lens which he used with or without a 1.4 TC that I had also brought.


We had a great time.


The Kruger section was full of elephants in large numbers both far and near:



Mala Mala delivered on leopards:



To prevent needless anticipation I will reveal now that Matt is hoping for another chance to return so that he might see cheetah, aardvarks and pangolins.....

Edited by pomkiwi
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Day 1/2 an Unexpected Scenic Flight


As I arrived at Birmingham airport an ominous text informed me that my onward flight from Frankfurt to Johannesburg had been delayed. By the time I got to Frankfurt it was revealed that my evening departure had been rescheduled to become an 8am departure the following day. Lufthansa put me up in a hotel but I had an early start and fitful sleep wondering if the rescheduled flight would actually happen. As it turned out all went to the revised plan and the unexpected benefit was that rather than the usual overnight flight I now had a full daytime over the whole of Africa.


As some may have noticed from a recent report I wrote about a trip to Patagonia I enjoy the opportunity to take photos from planes. This flight did not disappoint.


Firstly some early winter snow on the Alps:



Some nice early morning light on the Mediterranean Sea somewhere near Italy:



We then flew over desert for what seemed to be hours with some regularly spaced sand dune:



These ended abruptly although it is possible to imagine that this forms the margin of the advancing sands:



We then crossed the Congo basin with the contrast of dense vegetation and the rivers through increasingly interesting clouds:





An hour or so before we landed in Johannesburg the sun set behind a mass of cloud:



All in all the 11 hours of an unplanned daytime flight had been filled rather well...

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@pomkiwiWhat interesting photos!  Any idea about the cause/reason for the dunes? They look so strange.

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Posted (edited)
4 hours ago, Ginny said:

@pomkiwiWhat interesting photos!  Any idea about the cause/reason for the dunes? They look so strange.

Great question! I had no idea until you asked. The answer appears to be that the star dunes (as they are known) are formed when the environment is subject to opposing winds for example north-easterlies and south-westerlies. I also learnt that they are relatively young for dunes of their height - with many formed in the last thousand years. More details here:



Edited by pomkiwi
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Thank you so much @pomkiwi.  Quite fascinating!  I had never known about these before.

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what a gorgeous leopard photo! I look forward to hearing more about your trip. The ones from the airplane are really interesting too. I always try to pass the time watching movies but perhaps I should look at the window now and again!

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Posted (edited)

Kruger Day 1 - Skukuza to Satara


I spent the night at the Intercontinental at the airport and slept well. Matt arrived around 6.30 am and after a shower and freshen up in my room we headed back for our flight to Skukuza. All went smoothly and we were in our hire car by midday. We had a large SUV mainly for the better views but also to allow us to tackle any of the dirt roads without a second thought. The first reason was definitely needed as the grass was growing rapidly but second not really necessary during our short stay.

It was hot, unpleasantly so with the temperature hovering around 40 C (104 F for our transatlantic audience). The aircon in the car kept us comfortable but every time we opened the window it felt like opening an oven door.

We picked up some sandwiches and water at Skukuza and headed off towards Tshokwane on the H1-2. In general we kept to the tarmac roads for much of the time between camps but diverted round most of the loops, we also took quite a few detours along the roads most favoured by the authors of the Kruger Self-Drive book but didn't do many long distance drives along the unsurfaced roads which were generally quite rutted and very dusty.

Our first sighting was a mother and young impala which we thought must have been quite recently born:



As we drove along we saw lots of groups of elephants varying in size between a few to several tens of individuals. They were all in or close to the river drinking and trying to keep cool:







Photography was not easy for anything at a distance as the heat caused significant distortion and softness.


We pulled into Tshokwane for a break and the compulsory photos of the monkey troupe:





We continued our meandering journey north stopping off for various bits and pieces. Nothing particularly noteworthy but we filled the afternoon.

A large buffalo herd at a waterhole (sadly no evidence of following lions):



Young impalas looking cute:



A good number of birds:


Violet backed starling:




Lilac breasted roller:



A cross-looking Wahlberg's Eagle(I think):





Black shouldered kite:



An assortment of raptors mostly looking the other way:



As we neared Satara there a couple of hippos sparring lazily in one of the dams:





We checked into Satara with friendly and efficient staff and found our accommodation which was comfortable and reasonably cool - especially when the aircon was on.  We ate at the restaurant which was not great - very slow service, average food and staff who were unfriendly - the only people we met on our whole trip who were not lovely to speak to. The following evening we elected to get take away pizzas and eat them on our terrace which was a good move.

Given the length of Matt's journey and jet lag we were not late to bed!

Edited by pomkiwi
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Your eagle is a Bateleur. I think the restaurant staff in Satara are the most stressed out of any of the camps we go to. Lots of day trips as well as demanding locals and international guests. I’ve never known them to be unfriendly though, sorry to hear it. The full Cattle Baron experience is to be had in Skukuza…

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Posted (edited)

Kruger Day 2 - 41 degrees and lions


In November the camp gates open at 4.30am. It was still dark at that point as as we didn't see any point in joining (an admittedly short) queue to be first away we headed out just before 5am. It was already 25 degrees and the sun was just coming up:




We headed east on the S100 which has a good reputation for cat sightings. We passed a lone elephant and after about 40 minutes of slow driving the presence of a single stopped car alerted us to lions. Intially we had good views of a male posing in the nicely lit grass:





His companion also raised his head:



At this point we could see that there was a third member of the group who was not for moving. One stood up and it was clear that he was in need of a good feed:



For a period the group seemed interested in something in the distance:



In the end they all got up and moved into the shade of a small tree:



We continued along the road past an elephant covering itself in mud and water:



A ground hornbill was up in a tree in horrible light:



We drove to N'wantsi dam and the Swani hide without seeing much apart from a dragonfly and pied kingfisher at one of the waterholes:







In the same waterhole an elephant was practicing it's imitation of a walrus:



We passed a steenbok (one of quite a few who seemed more confiding than on previous trips):



Birdlife included a bataleur above:



As well as as lilac breasted roller with lunch:



As we drove along the H6 back towards Satara I saw my first Ostrich in a number of trips to Africa:



We then drove west along the H7 and followed the S36 down to Muzandzeni picnic spot. Other than a family group of elephants drinking and trying to keep cool it was very quiet:





The lack of action was probably fair given the temperature and the midday sun:



We stopped for our lunch at Muzandzeni.

Edited by pomkiwi
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Peter Connan

I can already tell that I'm going to enjoy this TR!

I think that lion is ill... Were the others also that emaciated?

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Posted (edited)

A long lunch with company and some lion stupidity (not by us)


Our approach to the self-driving section of our trip was to take it slowly. We would identify a destination and drive slowly towards it generally diverting around all of the river loops that appeared and to any waterholes or dams along side roads within a few km. We didn't make any efforts to drive lots of dirt roads criss-crossing the park as it was very hot and dusty and the park was generally very quiet.


Our lunch spot was deserted -the kiosk selling cold drinks and snacks shut up for the quiet season. We parked under a tree for shade and wandered over to another tree and sat at the bench.

We shared the shade with a woodland kingfisher and a starling:





A single baboon wandered past but clearly didn't feel our limited sandwich lunch would be worth investigating:



Then we became aware of three elephants that appeared silently:



They spent the next hour browsing around the picnic spot and again showed no interest in us. We kept a close eye on them and stayed well within the boundary fence whilst posing for 'selfies':





Not in anyway comparable with some of the experiences reported here but still a lovely and peaceful way to spend a hot lunchtime.


We decided to head back west down the S128 and then go back down the H6 to the Sweni hide. We had to wait on the exit road while one of our lunch companions took apart a small tree for his lunch. We then came across a different elephant on the road who appeared from the bush above the road :



We stayed where we were until he decided to move on. It remained hot and quiet until we spotted a van parked by a small tree on the edge of the H6. Underneath the tree was a pair of male lions. I'm not sure if they were two of the three we'd seen earlier but as they were about 8km away across the hot bush I think it unlikely:



The lions were only a couple of metres from the road and the van was parked beside them.  At that point one the people in the van appeared out of the sunroof and started taking photos with an i-pad. The lions immediately took notice. One got up and walked round beside his brother:


 His brother was growling softly and we decided it might be sensible to largely close our windows as the other prowled past.

Suddenly the sitting lion jumped forward with a snarl:



The passenger in the van disappeared back inside.


However a couple of minutes later he was back again and bobbing up and down swapping phones with the other occupants. The lions however were clearly interested:



One in particular was studying the guy hanging of of the sunroof intently:





Fortunately the van and occupants moved off and the lions settled back down to sleep. We drove on to the hide and while there saw a few birds in the relative cool. 

An African jacana:



A water (I think) thick-knee:



We then headed home back up the H6 but our lions were still flat. We gave way to a good sized elephant:



Seen into camp by a marabou stork already home to roost:



Overall a fairly gentle day with its interesting moments. A couple of beers and a pizza on our deck were followed by an early night....

Edited by pomkiwi
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35 minutes ago, Peter Connan said:

I can already tell that I'm going to enjoy this TR!

I think that lion is ill... Were the others also that emaciated?

Thanks @Peter ConnanI agree with you. We didn't get clear views of the others and although none were looking fat this one looked very thin - either ill or very old and struggling to feed were my guesses. If the lions we saw later were different that may have affected the dynamics - they looked fairly fit and healthy.

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Peter Connan

Thanks @pomkiwi

Yes on Water Dikkop.

What an idiot in the van! 

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Loving your report so far @pomkiwi. Wonderful photo's too .

I wonder if the skinny male lion is part of the Shish pride (which is the one the White male lion "Caspar" is from), one of your photo's could be him with the lighter coloured mane.

I saw Caspar and one of his skinny brothers when I went to Kruger in early January this year.



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Kruger Day 3 - Heat, Elephants, Water and a Surprise


Day 3 started in Satara and ended at Lower Sabie. We decided that we would head down towards Lower Sabie in the morning rather than go north as we wanted to spend some time searching for cheetahs south of Lower Sabie as there had been frequent reports of sightings in that area.

We started by repeatingthe previous days route of heading down S100, stopping by the N'wanetsi viewpoint and Sweni dam, back along the H6 and then headed south to Tshokwane for a late breakfast.


At 5 am it was already hot - it's not often I see swifts at sunrise:



A small groupof elephants were moving - one had it's own following of a large swarm of flies



The morning light was lovely on a small herd of zebras:



We drove past a mynah bird and coppery tailed coucal:




There was a large herd of elephants crossing H6, some of which had clearly found some clay to cover themselves in:





On the way down the H6 we stopped at a small waterhole by the road and watched a single elephant trying to keep cool while some warthogs sparred on the shoreline:






Further down there was very large herd of buffalo at the Kumana Dam:



After giving way to a chameleon:



We took a loop by the river and spied a skink by the road:



as well as a distant fish eagle enjoying its catch:



Rather annoyingly we were followed very closely by a small car as we went round the loop who seemed to be in a great hurry. We stopped as an elephant was occupying the road and feeding from the trees , in no hurry to move. The occupants in the car behind started hooting and gesturing before finally reversing off at speed :



We continued to enjoy our peaceful time with the elephant and when he moved off we continued gently around the loop.

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An enjoyable TR, and what a wonderful way to spend dad-and-son bonding time. The lion could have had a much-needed and good meal of the guy in the van, and no one can blame the lion for trying, except the SANs park people i guess. 

Why are people rushing in a wildlife park?? that really bugged me. Glad you guys were able to continue the peaceful time with the elephant - those jumbos can be such a tranquil and relaxing pill.  

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12 hours ago, Kitsafari said:

An enjoyable TR, and what a wonderful way to spend dad-and-son bonding time. The lion could have had a much-needed and good meal of the guy in the van, and no one can blame the lion for trying, except the SANs park people i guess. 

Why are people rushing in a wildlife park?? that really bugged me. Glad you guys were able to continue the peaceful time with the elephant - those jumbos can be such a tranquil and relaxing pill.  

Thanks. To be fair to SANParks I think they would have little sympathy for the tourist in this case.

I'm not sure what the guys in the car behind us were expecting us to do - there was no way I was going to try and push a large elephant out of my way!

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Posted (edited)

Day 3 continued- a 'few' more elephants


As we headed south we stopped at the Mazithi Dam to wach as what fet to be an endless stream of elephants (but was probably around 70 in small groups) came down to the water;






The adults generally took things seriously, drinking, spraying themselves with water and watching the youngsters:





The juniors however were like toddlers at a pool party. Some were piling on top of one another:



Others wrestling:





One was rushing into the water and then spent time chasing birds:










A little further along the road we watched as a family group dug into the sand of the river bed to find the clean water below:





It was interesting to observe them teaching the youngsters:



We stopped for breakfast at Tshokwane and fought off the monkeys who fancied a share!

We followed the main road south towards Lower Sabie. Shortly after the Nkuhlu viewpoint we came across a car stopped on the edge of the roads with occupants looking intently into the bush below the road. We of course stopped as well (it would be rude just to drive past we felt). The reason for their fascination became clear:




Down below the road edge (and possibly using a culvert underneath the road for shade) was a pack of around 15 wild dogs. Unfortunately they were mainly tucked out of view and we didn't get a clear view of the pups. The adults were moving around trying unsuccessfully to find a cool spot. The vegetation and our position above them made photography difficult but we did manage some views as they moved around:







We waited for quite a while hoping they would move on but they were not going anywhere. Considering the temperature this was a wise decision:



The rest of our drive to Lower Sabie was quiet and we were able to check in after a bite of lunch.


Edited by pomkiwi
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Day 3 continued - just too hot?


After lunch we photographed a few more elephant and the occasional hippo keeping cool in the river from the viewpoint at the camp:










We then drove south along the S82 and H4-2 follwing up on reported cheetah sightings. We found almost nothing apart form a bateleur:



Just before Crocodile Bridge we returned north along the S28 and stopped at the hide along the road. There was absolutely nothing to see and the light the whole way was ominous, even with the cloud cover it was above 40 degrees:



Eventually we made it to sunset dam where we were able to play with a stork and its reflection:



Both barn and lesser striped swallows posed nicely:



I captured a pied kingfisher in flight with a very low shutter speed!



Hippos were calling and becoming active:





As the last of the light faded we left for camp where we had a good meal and a reasonable sleep.



Edited by pomkiwi
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Leaving Kruger


We left Lower Sabie at 5 am and went to Sunset Dam (just to be contrary).

Hippos were milling around before settling in for the day - it was already warm and headed for 40 degrees again:



A black winged stilt paddled around in the shallows.



We passed lots of elephants, this family group were worsening the visibility by taking dust baths:










We headed north and stopped at Tshokwane for breakfast with a friendly Steenbok in attendance:



We learnt that lions had been sighted a little further north on the road to Satara so we headed up there although we were delayed on the bridge over the river:






We did find lions but not where they had been reported (probably not the same group) although they were a little way away and very flat:





As I explained to Matt - rather more typical of a lion sighting in the Kruger!


On the way back south we passed a group of three sable - the first time I've seen the species:






We dropped into Skukuza to fill the car up with petrol and ourselves with coffee having passed a few more elephants and monkeys on the way. We then headed up to the airport to drop the car off and meet our lift to Mala Mala.


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I am sweating just looking at your thermometer.  But those very early starts in Nov proved fruitful.  The elephants must have felt the heat too and enjoyed some extra splashing.  They were very playful for you.  The  colors of Violet-backed Starling and Chameleon on the road really pop.  Your arrival aerial shots are superb too.  Sable firsts, and nicely grouped!!


How wonderful you could have such an action-packed father-son getaway.

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@AtravelynnThank-you. Yes it was good to spend time with my son. We previously got together to photograph bears in Alaska and plan to meet next February to go to Yellowstone.

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