Monday, November 8, 2010

Tour: Hluhluwe uMfolozi and Kruger Park – October 2010

So, there I was, on tour again at the end of October, this time to the Hluhluwe uMfolozi Park and then onto the Kruger National Park with two clients. We began with a boat ride at St.Lucia where the clients had wonderful sightings of hippos (as usual), crocodiles and an African Fish Eagle, very close to the boat. This was quite a windy day, and the eagle was not too concerned with flight, preferring rather to pose for all and sundry. As is the norm, there were also lots of other water birds to be seen.
We then entered the Hluhluwe/Umfolozi Park and en route to Hilltop Camp saw lots of general game – and I am now including elephant and buffalo as general game in this park, because they were seen so often. Oh, what the heck…I am also including white rhino in this category, as many of them were also seen. On our second day here, we had to wait for two elephants to move away from the camp exit gate before we could proceed with our early morning drive. One of our memorable sightings was of a herd of about forty elephant down at the Hluhluwe River, just below the Sitezi view site - and they were there for quite some time. On the Lower Magangeni Road there was also a yellow-billed kite, which, because of it being early morning, emulated the fish eagle of the day before and preferred to pose rather than fly away. (Raptors are a bit lazy to fly if they have to flap their wings too much – they prefer to soar on the warm thermals, which are not present in the early mornings). Alas, the light was poor, so I didn’t take any photos.

We returned to Hilltop for lunch, and from my chalet, not too far away from my window, about 40 metres away in fact, I see this large elephant bull trying to get at some of the surface water, which is from the run-off of the kitchen. He was quite content, and stayed there a while before moving off alongside the camp fence. (Just as an aside, I also spoke to my neighbours, a Dutch couple, at this time, and who were in the chalet next to mine. I also noted that their rental car had a large piece of paper taped to the steering wheel, with one word on it: “LINKS”. This word translates into English as “left”, which tells me that this person now has a constant visual reminder to keep on the left side of the road when driving in South Africa!).

The next morning after breakfast we set off from Hilltop and traveled through Swaziland’s eastern section, stopping for lunch at Komatipoort, before entering the Kruger National Park. We checked into Lower Sabie at about 15:00 and went for a short drive, having only one and a half hours before we had to be back in camp before the gates closed. In this short time we saw two herds of elephant, a male lion just off the road and a leopard in a tree, a fair distance from the road. All of this just on the main road next to the Sabie River! We also did a game drive in the Lower Sabie area the next morning before breakfast and saw lots of general game, a hippo asleep next to the road and four lions on the Nhlanganzwani Dam wall, again a fair distance away.

After breakfast we headed north towards Satara, and just after Tshokwane, we came upon another group of lions. These were quite far away, but I reckon that there were about six or seven of them. About two kilometers after seeing this pride of lion, we chanced upon another leopard, this one also in a tree. This chap was asleep, with his rear end facing us (and I think I may one day publish a coffee table book, “The Rear Views of Africa’s Animals”). Anyway, we stayed watching him, as he did appear to be a little uncomfortable. I then saw three kudu on the other side of his tree, heading in our direction, with the leopard between them and us. The leopard then sensed their presence and turned around, which is what we wanted. He then showed great interest in the kudu, which at this stage were still blissfully unaware of his presence, until they were almost directly under his tree. They then realized he was there and burst into a chorus of alarm calls, leaving the scene in a bit of a hurry. The leopard lost interest, (these were adult kudu – what could he do?) and settled down again, in almost the exact spot and exact pose, i.e. with his rear end facing us. It was at this point that we too left the scene.

Lunch at Satara produced a herd of buffalo at the waterhole just outside the fence, soon to be followed by four elephant bulls – ho hum, more general game. They did not disturb my lunch, and stayed there for quite some time. I then wandered over with my camera, just as they were leaving the waterhole. Maybe they sensed that I was someone who has yet to take a decent photo of an elephant, so they then proceeded to cover themselves with sand and dust in a show of activity. I don’t understand how an elephant can take so much sand and dust up its trunk, blow this all over them, and not sneeze! Am I missing something? Anyway, I took some photos, but I still have a long way to go before I get a decent photo of these magnificent animals.

That evening there was a civet at this same waterhole, but this animals decided to leave the site, probably due to the arrival of a spotted hyena! One does not see civet often, so this was quite a bonus. On getting back to my chalet after dinner, there was a honey badger on the prowl, and this chap was busy systematically turning over dirt bins in the hope of finding some food. When he came to my bin, I encouraged him to leave, and this I did by clapping my hands loudly, from behind the safety of my stoep wall. He took my threat seriously and by-passed my bin, happily foraging further on.

The next day the clients did a guided walk, so I took the opportunity to do a game drive by myself, but just as well the clients were not with me, as I hardly saw anything. What I did see were some yellow-billed hornbills, and one of them had caught some big blue insect, so I took a couple of photos of this. After they had returned from their walk we took a drive on the S100, which produced a pride of lions. Unfortunately there were quite a few vehicles about, so I could not get a clear shot of them and they eventually disappeared into the thick bush. That afternoon we went for a drive as far as the bridge over the Olifants River where one is allowed out of one’s vehicle. A yellow-billed kite flew quite low over me and I banged off a photo or two of him. He then landed on the bridge railing, so I thought I would try and get as close to him as I could before he flew off. I walked closer and closer to him, stopping every step of the way to take his photo, in case this should be my last. The next thing I knew I was so close to him that I was shooting just head and shoulders of this bird! He was turning his head in that quizzical way that birds and dogs have, wondering what all the fuss was about. I was happy with what I got, as were the clients.


En route from Satara to Skukuza the next day we saw a pride of eleven lions, and lo and behold, another leopard in a tree, close to the road. This animal was in a deep sleep on a thick branch, so not much of him was visible, but it is always exciting to find a leopard. Before we had reached Skukuza, we came upon another pride of five lions and then for the remainder of the day, lots of general game (and remember I am including elephant and buffalo in this term “general game”)

The last day we left the park fairly early as the clients had to get to Johannesburg in the early afternoon. On the way out I stopped at my favourite spot in the Kruger, Lake Panic. I did not expect too much here as it was early, just after 06:00 and not much was expected to happen. There were some green-backed herons flying about, a grey heron, some kingfishers, hippos and some crocodiles that were floating lazily in the still water. One of the crocodiles then came to the edge of the water, and caused some disturbance - and this disturbance was caused by this crocodile catching a barbell! The next second birds came from all over, screeching in bird language at this poor crocodile, which totally ignored their verbal assault. The grey heron actually ran to the crocodile, as it was that close to it, two green backed-herons flew in from who knows where and a squacco heron appeared from out of the blue. The other two crocodiles also made their way to this lucky one. I had never seen this behavior before and was quite surprised that the birds would go this close to a crocodile to vent their disapproval. Anyway, the crocodile proceeded to arrange the fish in its jaws so that it eventually went down its throat, head first, never to be seen again.

Just before we exited the park we came upon some ground hornbills and I managed to get a pretty poor photo of one of them throwing a small frog up into the air and catching it – again, the frog was never to be seen again – all over in a few short seconds.

At this stage I have to confess that I have not included all the wildlife sightings in this article – this will just take up too much space, but be sure that we saw many, many animals and birds on this trip. In fact, the clients commented that they had not expected to see so much. It was a pity that the lions were just too far for any decent photos, or then so close that some cars in the photo would have spoiled it. People generally still want to see lions and they are viewed as a special sighting. They are, aren’t they?

What can one say about these two parks? I am often asked which my favourite park in South Africa is, or then which is my favourite park between the Hluhluwe/Umfolozi or Kruger Parks, and I now have to say that it is Kruger. Although the Hluhluwe/Umfolozi Park can be good, your chances of finding lion and leopard are not as good as in Kruger. You would also be traveling over the same roads if you stay here longer than two nights, whereas Kruger is so big, that you don’t have to do the same road twice. However, the food in Kruger cannot be compared to Hilltop – Hilltop has a much better selection, is better prepared and the staff are more efficient. Why can’t Kruger get it right when it comes to catering? Imagine if they outsourced their restaurants to a company with a proven track record in South Africa of actually running family type restaurants at a reasonable price – how good will that be. “So folks, where shall we eat tonight? Spur or Nandos? At the moment it is dry, overcooked chicken or pork and very overcooked vegetables, with some tired salads as a distraction. Maybe one does not go to the Kruger Park for their culinary offerings but for their wildlife experience? Why can’t it be both?

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