Monday 11 December 2023

Kruger National Park, South Africa - July 2023 - Day 2 - Berg-en-Dal to Lower Sabie

Keen as mustard we were up before dawn and in the queue to leave the camp as soon as the gates opened! Woohoo! This is where the safari really starts! We turned right out of the gate, this would first take us to a water hole for dawn, and the we could drive the S110 road as part of the Matiulu Loop, transferring to the S120 which then joined the main Malalane-Skukuza paved road 


The water hole was only a few minutes away and within seconds we were watching an adult Hyena lumbering across it. Such strange looking animals with rear legs so much shorter than the front ones, a really forbidding and powerful appearance. It had a quick drink and disappeared as quickly as it had arrived - things to see, things to eat probably. We reversed our tracks a little to pick up the road, and as the day got brighter began to see birds. This is more like it! None of these big five animals please, birds is what it is all about. I basically kept eBird lists on the go at all times, and so recorded lists for stretches of road, so it's mostly impossible to say where something was. For instance the first list uses the hotspot "Matiulu loop/S110", and tells me I drove 24km in 40 minutes, during which we saw 15 species - Natal Spurfowl and Swainson's Spurfowl were pretty easy by the side of the road, and both species of Southern Hornbill (Yellow-billed and Red-billed) were very common. We were pleased with a Crested Barbet - all this is out of the window mind, you can't get out of the car, though we did have the windows open. Various Starlings were pretty abundant - Greater Blue-eared Starling, Burchell's Starling and Cape Starling - initially quite hard to get to grips with as the differences are not striking, but gradually we pieced them together. 

Crested Barbet

We stopped for breakast at the Asfaal Picnic Site where you are allowed to get our of your vehicle. There were Vervet Monkeys here, skilled pilferers of food, keen to get in on the early morning brai-ing - lots of familes were setting up stoves and cooking breakfast. At the back of the site there is a creek, and whilst our breakfast order was being prepared I did a spot of unrestricted birding. A Pied Kingfisher flew past, and 2 Chinspot Batis and 2 Black-backed Puffbacks zoomed around trees on the other side along with a Sulphur-breasted Bushshrike which was an amazing looking bird. Of course I knew none of these species, and so I was in my element, trying to get on a remember different features that would allow me to pin the species down in the field guide, especially thrilling when you already knew you were looking at a brand new bird you had never seen before anywhere. Birding is truly brilliant when you know nothing.

Black-backed Puffback

Vervet Monkey

It took nearly three hours to drive the next 22km. Why? Because as we were driving up the road after breakfast a guy coming the other way flagged us down to tell us about a Leopard! This was probably the number one animal we had wanted to see, and we were very grateful to get this gen. In fact it was pretty common, people would often stop to tell you about good animals. There was no trouble working out where it was, and we joined a long queue of cars who were slowly (and in some cases taking their sweet time!) driving past it. Eventually we made it to a spot where we could see it, and although partially obscured it was a moment I will remember for a long time. Bloody brilliant! The birds along here were pretty decent as well, with African Wooly-necked Stork and Saddle-billed Stork near some water, a huge Martial Eagle that flew over the road, and our first Red-billed Oxpecker - a bird that screams Africa for me. And loads more!

There has been loads of Impala, some Zebra, but as we approached Mathekenyane Hill we a Giraffe for the first time. Several Giraffe. Another wow I can't believe it moment. So graceful yet so lumbering, I think it was a family group with a few adults and a couple of much smaller ones (that were still pretty big!). We only saw one in the thick vegetation at first, but once we were on top of the hill with the scope we found another six slowly moving west. Too far for photos, but the scope views were sensational. 

Red-billed Oxpecker. Not sure what it is on.

We carried on further east to the Sabie River, a slow meandering drive stopping frequently to marvel at the abundant wildlife. Giraffe and Elephant were common, the density of Impala almost overwhelming, Zebra and more, especially when we got nearer the river. Near Skukuza there are crossing points, and from the car here we saw Goliath Heron, Water Thick-knee, Yellow-billed Stork, a Lizard Buzzard, several Pied Kingfisher, White-fronted Bee-eater, Bearded Woodpecker and a pair of White-backed Vulture. Our second Leopard of the trip was around here somewhere, on the main road between Szukuza and Lower Sabie, resting on a spit of sand below the road. Given that this was probably my most-wanted animal, to see two on day one had been remarkable. Before we knew it the day was nearly out - we had only driven 120km or so but it had taken all day. There had just been so much to see.

As the end of the day approached we were on our way to Sunset Dam when we heard about some Lions down the road. Before we could reach it our path was blocked by a very large Elephant. We stopped and put the car to the side of the road to let it pass, whereupon it changed direction, crossing the road diagonally straight towards us. I backed the car up a little further this time on the other side of the road. No good, the Elephant zig-zagged back our way again. I am no expert in Elephant behaviour but I did not take this to be a good sign. By now it was getting difficult to reverse as there was a queue of cars behind us. This was actually quite a scary moment. I managed to get alongside the next car back and asked what we should do. The Afrikaans voice that came back was quite clear - "We get out ov 'ere!". As this massive animal got ever closer we all just about managed to do three point turns and do exactly that. Half a mile or so down the road we stopped and I confess I was shaking. That had been a huge animal and we had been unlucky to be the first car in its way. And with what might have been our first Lions just the other side it, also what rotten luck! 

We then noticed that cars were coming the other way, cars that had been queued up behind the Elephant. It must have left the road! We quickly turned around and returned the way we had came and sure enough it was gone. And even better news, the three Lions were up ahead, chilling on the side of the road! Immense, what a day this had been. Elephant, Giraffe, 2 Leopards,3 Lions, and loads more besides.

We ended the day at Sunset Dam watching huge Crocodiles, various Waders, Helmeted Guineafowl, lots of water birds and our first Hamerkop. Checking in to Lower Sabie we went shopping for brai supplies before heading out on our first night drive. There were Hippos lumbering about in the dark, surprisingly nimble out of water, as well as Civet, Large Spotted Genet, Hyena, and on the bird front Fiery-necked Nightjar. Once back we enjoyed another terrific brai and fell asleep pretty much instantly.

Aloe - likely to be Marlothii, but many are very similar indeed.

Encephalartos - natalensis is usually the default, but perhaps this is longifolius?



  1. Amazing posts! That elephant does look like it means business! I've kind of lost track re your camera gear - were these shots taken with your new set up? Or the old set up? How are you getting on with the new set up? A comparison new vs old would be interesting....

    1. That Elephant definitely meant business and I probably shouldn't have taken its photo. Anyway, re photography this was the swansong for the vast majority of my Canon gear, including both the camera and lens that I used on the Elephant. I knew I was going to sell it, the decision was made, but I wanted in particular the 70-200 f2.8 lens for South Africa. When I got home I sold everything except for my pro body and the two big bird lenses. At a vast loss of course. The little Sony thing + 1 little tiny zoom lens is just amazing, but I didn't get it until late August so I am not there in blogging terms yet. The post called "vibrant" on 30/10 is with the new Sony, but that is it so far.