Okay did we or did we not see the “Big 5” mammals while in Kruger National Park. You will just have to review the blog posting to find out. But I must warn you we spent 11 days in the park so I’ve decided to split the blog into two parts. Oh, before I forget the “Big 5” are: Elephants, Lions, Water Buffalo, Rhinos, and Leopards. The ‘Big 5’ was originally designated for the danger and difficulty of hunting by the ‘Great White Hunter’ but now I think it is based on difficulty of seeing them.
First a few facts: According to Wikipidia (the source of totally accurate information) here are the statistics for wildlife populations in Kruger National Park as of 2009:
Water Buffalo – 27,000
Black Rhinos – 350
White Rhinos – 7000-12000
Burchell’s Zebras – 17,797 (now is that an accurate count or what?)
Giraffe – 5,114
Hippos – 3000 (I think there were more than that)
Lions – 2800 (I think there are less than that)
Leopards – 2,000
Elephants – 11,672
Waterbuck – 5,000
Impalas – 150,000 (I think we saw them all)
Kudu – 5,798
Blue Wildebeest – 9,612
Cheetah – 120
Nile Crocodiles – 3,000
Okay, now here is what we saw for the most part.
After we left Memel we headed towards Kruger National Park. We stopped the first night in Dullstroom a quaint village. We stayed the night at a lovely B&B called Peace Corner with a cozy (very cool evening with no heat) suite. The lodging is classified as self-catering, meaning you have a kitchenette. So instead of cooking off we went to dinner at Mrs. Simpson’s, named after Wallace Simpson whose love affair with the King of England resulted in scandal. The food here was quite good. We were the only ones there at 6:30, but by 7:00 pm the doors opened and people poured in – a popular place.
The morning we left Memel the weather was cold and stayed that way for three days. After Dullstroom we headed to Lyndenburg via a dirt road we wanted to check for birds. We did see some, but not as many as we had hoped. Could have been the weather – cold and blustery. We had a nice place at Lyndenburg – Aqua Terra. The host – Charlene – was very talkative. She was happy to have guests from Alaska (her first), which she thought was part of Canada – we get that a lot in our travels.
When we woke up the next morning it was raining. I’m sure none of the South Africans minded because of their drought conditions. It did interfere with our birding as we had hoped to stop at the Mt. Sheba Nature Reserve. When we drove by the turn off the road into the reserve disappeared in the fog and appeared to be a muddy challenge. Shortly thereafter, we did see a Southern Bald Ibis alongside the road at a historic mining town called Pilgram’s Rest. Can miss that “bald” head. I know I already included a photo of this bird, but you will continue to see some of the birds over and over again – particularly some of my favorites.
After a night at Daan’s Place in Graskop, we headed to Kruger International Airport to take care of a little matter with our rental car. Earlier in the week I was looking to see what the mileage was when we started the trip. I want to know how many miles (kilometers) we drive. When I checked the return location and date, I found that the contract wanted us to return the car 18 days early and in Durban. We had booked the rental so we could return the car in Cape Town. So off to the airport and Bidvest’s (rental car agency) office to sign a new and accurate contract. While we did have to go out of our way, we did see a Long-crested Eagle right alongside the road. Can’t beat that.
After signing the contract and getting some cash (great exchange rate by the way – keeps getting better and better), we headed to Kruger National Park. We did spot some wildlife along the way so were filled with anticipation.
We got to our camp around 1:00 pm and checked out the birds in the Pretoruiskop Rest Camp, our home for the night. We walked the Sable Trail and saw some great birds, including the Grey Go-away Bird. We were pretty excited to see this bird but later found it nearly everywhere.
In the morning we left the rest camp and drove to our next rest camp – Skukuza – the long way. Kruger has paved and gravel roads so we took the back country gravel roads for most of the way. The gravel roads are very good, nothing like what we had been bumping over outside the park. We estimate we saw over 70 Elephants on Day 2, with most in groups of 15 or so, and occasionally the lone elephant. Throughout the day we saw Zebras, Impalas, Impalas, Impalas (okay you get the drift), Vervets, Kudo, Wildebeest, Warthogs, Giraffe (one jumped out onto the road right in front of our car), Waterbuck, and a Nile crocodile. Oh, and some really great birds.
We did go to a picnic area for a much needed break. You are allowed to get out of your vehicle at only designated areas and they are far and few between – otherwise no body part (arms, legs, head, etc.) may extend from the vehicle when driving in the park. And there are liability disclaimers everywhere. Of course no one obeys that rule. The picnic area was full of Yellow-billed Hornbills and Starlings searching the picnic grounds for a handout (even though strictly prohibited), along with the Vervet Monkeys always searching to grab some food. We got to camp around 4:00 pm and checked into our accommodations.
One thing I can say about birding Kruger is that if you are going faster than 20 kilometers per hour it is too fast. On non-tarred (non-paved gravel) roads the speed limit is 40 kilometers per hour, while on tarred roads the speed limit is 50 kph. I don’t know how anyone can see the mammals going that fast. We rarely pass anyone, unless they are looking at a mammal and we want to move onwards. And I think a lot of people get frustrated with us because we stop for birds and they wonder what we are stopping to see. Whenever a car is stopped it soon creates a traffic jam of expectation. We’ve seen several people with bumper stickers that say “Birdwatching, Please Pass”. I’m not sure the rental agency would appreciate us putting a similar bumper sticker on their car.
Woke up early and left camp around 7:00 am to catch the lions. Didn’t happen. We were stopped at an area checking out a Brown-Headed Kingfisher and a Blue Waxbill when a vehicle came by loaded with passengers. The driver (a tour guide) asked us if we were looking at something specific or if we were just resting in the shade. He said it was a slow day. We thought so too, at least for mammals. We got 11 new trip birds (I think they are all life birds too – need to check on the Water Thick-knee), and 74 bird species total for the day. Not a bad day, and in fact the best day we’ve had yet. We’ve missed some birds – raptors flying too high, small little birds, flyovers.
We had intended to do a loop drive, but by the time we got to the turn-off for the loop we had only gone 12 kilometers in three hours. It was already 10:30 am. As you can see, we generally go real slow – about 10 kph and make lots of stops for anything that moves.
We got to our next rest camp – Lower Sabie – at 3:30 pm. We checked into reception, checked out the store (food and gifts), and then checked into our hut. In our previous accommodations in the park we had a kitchen area. Not so with this hut. It comes with a refrigerator and a sink, but no cooking or eating utensils. So, we have to eat at the restaurant because we didn’t bring any cooking or eating utensils, except for a couple of sporks. We will be here for two nights. When I went to book our accommodations for the park last January at Lower Sabie they only had huts left so I took what I could get. This is a popular rest camp.
Score, Score, Score. We got an early start and went to a nearby dam to check out the waterbirds. After taking a gazillion photos of a Giant Kingfisher sitting on a dam concrete guardrail, a ranger stopped us (no we weren’t out of our vehicle) and told us a cheetah had just been sighted just up the road. We thanked him and then quickly drove off (within the speed limit of course) toward where the cheetah was sighted. We saw several cars parked jockeying for position along side the road, we pulled up, and sure enough there on our left were TWO cheetahs. We were elated. We didn’t think we would see any on this trip, let alone two. I guess it is rare for people to see cheetahs in the park. Score, Score, Score.
We turned around and headed towards Crocodile Bridge Rest Camp. We didn’t stay at there, but we wanted to check out the wildlife along the main road to the rest camp and along a secondary road. We didn’t see much (except for two Rhinos in the far distance) until we got to within a couple kilometers of the rest camp where we spotted Giraffe and Zebras – two of my favorites. No lions yet, however. We have gotten three of the Big 5 – Water Buffalo, Elephants, and Rhinos. We just need the lion and the leopard. With seven more days in the park we are hoping to get both.
We did get some good bird sightings today too. We were surprised to find three Crested Francolins along side the road. Jack spotted one of them going into the brush and then I was able to locate them in the brush just off the road. Of course about 100 meters later we had two right in the open. Much better for taking photos. We also had a Double-banded Sandgrouse alongside the main road. I wasn’t too sure we would see any Francolins or Sandgrouses on the trip so today was a great day to bird. I am now up to 243 total species of birds seen in South Africa since we landed on August 22, 2015. Not too bad for being on our own – no guide to find the secret spots and birds for us.
Speaking of birds – we are still get stumped by a number of the raptors, particularly eagles. Several are easy – Martial Eagle, Long-crested Eagle, African Fish Hawk, and Bateleur. Most are not so easy. I even bought a raptor book but still get stumped, especially when they are flying high in the sky.
The African Veld countryside varies but predominately thickets of brush and tall grass, surprise since we envisioned the open savanna grasslands with isolated trees doting the landscape. So, you really have to stop and scan or otherwise you might miss a rhino or two blending in. Who knows how many lions and leopards we may have already missed – and we go slower than most (okay all) people.
We are staying the night again at Lower Sabie. There is a small lake/pond nearby. We went there around dusk to see what wildlife would come to the water – Kudu and Impalas, with the hippos staying in the pond to keep cool. When we got there I went to grab my camera and realized I had left it back at our hut. Dang. There was a Grey Heron standing on the back of a mostly submerged hippo. The heron seemed to float across the water as the hippo moved underwater. Fun to watch. Then three Water Thick-knees flew within 10 feet of the car. What great photos I missed. Double Dang.
We broke camp at 06:00 to get a good start on the day. This is our longest travel day in terms of distance – 93 kilometers (around 58 miles). Doesn’t sound like much but when you go 10-15 kilometers an hour and stop for birds and other wildlife, then it can seem like a LONG distance. We actually made it in good time (not much to see unfortunately), arriving at our next rest camp – Satara in mid-afternoon. I still like the first rest camp best.
We also left early hoping to see a lion. No go. We did, however, spot another Cheetah. I wonder how many people see three cheetahs during a trip to Kruger. I suspect very few. We did see large groups of Impalas. They are so numerous they don’t even warrant much of a look anymore – unless of course one is being chased by a cheetah – no such luck.
The highlight for me today bird wise was the Pearl Spotted Owlet. We lucked into that bird as I saw a small bird fly into a tree and told Jack to stop. When I looked up into the tree I saw a larger shape. My binocs went straight to that bird and we had our first Owlet of the trip. What a cute bird. Surprising the USA has more owl species than Southern Africa. Of course Southern Africa has far more raptor species.
We traveled mostly on pavement today, which was nice for a change. Tomorrow we will get up early (again) and check out the nearby area for lions and leopards and more birds.
We are scheduled to stay two nights at Satara. This camp has six circles of huts. The one we are in (A-8) does have a WC (water closet, i.e., toilet) and shower, cooking utensils, and a kitchenette. Each camp has a restaurant, store, and petrol (fuel). We didn’t know what to expect with respect to food for sale in the shop. Well each one has plenty of sodas, chips, and cookies. Not much in the way of food unless you want to buy Impala, Gemsbok, Steenbok steaks. Me not so much. We brought enough food to the park for four days thinking we would stock up in these “well equipped stores”. Glad they have restaurants because we have had to utilize them.
I must say that as Americans we are spoiled when it comes to different types of foods available in our grocery stores. I’ve yet to visit a store that has our variety of food stuff. I’m happy for that variety. Bring it on.
Today started out windy and clear, but the clouds came and settled in. The wind remained. Not as many birds today as in previous days in the park. They were out there, only they weren’t singing or calling much.
We left the Satara rest camp around 6:00 am in hopes of seeing a lion. No go. Not sure where they are hiding, but they are doing it well. We did see about four cars parked off the road looking at something and we had our hopes up. Turns out there was a leopard just off the road. From our viewpoint we could only see the back of the leopard and there was a LARGE elephant coming straight at us with its ears flared out. I told Jack to move on. All the other cars backed off too. The elephant went towards the leopard to challenge it, but we didn’t see the leopard move off since we had taken off not wanting to be overrun by a two ton elephant.
We continued on our way stopping off at a wet area where we got a good look at a Hamerkop. I always thought these birds were bigger. Another car coming the other direction stopped too and said it was their favorite place on the road. We had to move on as another car came up behind us and we were blocking their passage. About another kilometer down the road, without another vehicle in sight, a mother leopard and her two cubs walked across the road in front of us, momma leopard stopped and gave us a long stare – SCORE, SCORE, SCORE. Woohoo!!! And I got a couple of decent photos (remember I’m not allowed to stick any part of my body outside the vehicle). What beautiful animals. I told Jack I’m glad we got to see the leopard and her cubs, because otherwise we could only say we saw half a leopard. We have now seen four of the “Big 5” in the park: Elephant, Rhino, Water Buffalo, and Leopard. All we have left to see if the lion.
We did get out and stretch our legs at a bird hide. We didn’t see much in the way of birds but there were at least a dozen Nile Crocodiles warming (no sun out) themselves.
We then left and continued our loop drive back to camp. We did see a few bird species and many Impalas.
Before going back to camp, we decided to take another road to check out the birds and wildlife, but first decided to stop at the rest camp for a break (drink and bathroom). At the parking lot, there was a small group of people looking up into a tree pointing their cameras. I thought it might be a lizard, but it turned out to be an African Scops Owl. This is the smallest owl found in Southern Africa. So cute and I got some good photos (hard not too, it was about ten feet above us), including the photo of people looking at the bird. Quite the attraction this little bird.
When we went back out we didn’t see anything new mammal wise, however, I did get another life bird – Stierling’s Wren-Warbler. This little bird was too fast for a photo.
Unsuccessful on our own searching for lions, we decided to go with the pros and went on a Sunset Drive offered by the SANPark (National Park Service in South Africa) in a open-sided vehicle along with 21 other people in hopes of finding lions, leopards, and cheetahs – oh my. Luck was not with us. We did see, however, a family of Laughing Hyenas, a stripped Jackel, and a Genet (member of the mongoose family we were told). Those were the “new” animals we saw on the trip. Jack and I saw four large black birds (they were walking away from us) and suspect they may have been the critically endangered Southern Ground Hornbill.
So we didn’t see a lion during the first six days of the trip. Check out my Kruger National Park – Part 2 blog to see if we saw one during the next five days we spent in the park.
ITS ALWAYS A GREAT DAY TO BIRD even from the confines of your car.