Kruger in the Wet

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Kruger in the rainy season is a totally different experience to the dry season. The wet season may be a time of plenty for the wildlife but it’s a time of drought when it comes to good photography opportunities.

The bush throughout the park during this time of year is a lush green with small pools of water everywhere. Consequently the animals disperse over a wide area, and what is available to photograph is often obscured by dense vegetation.  In the northern reaches of the park where animal densities are generally lower than in the south the Mopani bush is very thick and you have to work hard to find suitable photo opportunities. With hindsight we should have missed the top end all together and planned a more central and southern centered trip. But hindsight only comes with hindsight.

Letaba and Sirheni

Crossing into the middle section of park from Phalaborwa on the first day it was hot, very hot. The Mopani was green but the underlying grass was all dry which gave us hope for a good few days. It was a hope that quickly turned to excitement when less than ten kilometers from the gate we came across a male and two female lions resting in the shade of a Mopani tree right next to the road….things were looking up.

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But as usual with us what goes up quickly comes down because shortly after checking into Letaba, our camp for the first night, it started to rain and continued raining on and off for the next five days. Not at all what we wanted. But as luck would have it, just as we crossed the Letaba bridge early the next morning the light changed and we were greeted by the sight of a magnificent double rainbow to our front and a spectacular sunrise to our right.

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Our main base for the northern part of our trip was Sirheni Bush Camp. It’s a nice camp but with the rain came muddy washed out roads and the whole time we were there they were wet and muddy. The constant rain the first few days was miserable for everyone and everything. Most of the side roads in the middle and northern sections of the park were closed. This meant game viewing options were limited, but balanced out by some interesting sightings in the form of a Serval Cat in the middle of the road early one morning and a totally wet and bedraggled juvenile Bateleur Eagle below.

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Early one morning after a night of constant drizzle we came across a troop of Baboons that were really wet and feeling very sorry for themselves. Some were huddled in groups under trees trying their best to keep each other warn. Others were huddled in tight balls fast asleep and not moving.

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Later as the day wore on we came across another troop which were really enjoying themselves. While some groomed, a group of youngsters were having a ball chasing each other through a big puddle just like a bunch of naughty kids.

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Sirheni at this time of the year is great for birding and the camp was awash with Paradise Flycatchers. Some simple quiet observation quickly identified a frequently attended branch. Focusing the lens  revealed a nest under construction. After this there was no more frustrated chasing of birds up and down the camp. I just lent back in the shade of the nearest lodge wall and waited for the birds to come to me. Just the type of photography of fidgety birds that I like.

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Also within the camp were some Red Headed Weaver nests and another great opportunity not to be missed.

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Sadly, the downside of Sirheni is the fact that the dam downstream from the camp was washed away during the February 2014 floods, so the nice water frontage the camp is famous for is now just all sand and reeds. But it’s still a quiet and restful place and the accommodation is excellent.

Side Trip to Pafuri

On the third day of our Sirheni stay, thinking we would escape the rain  we woke up at 4.00am and were out the gate at 5.00, with some lucky beans in our pockets heading up to Pafuri with the idea to do some birding with Frank Mbasa at the Pafuri rest stop. Two and a half hours of wet driving later we arrived to find all the Luvuvu river side roads to the Pafuri rest stop and Crooks Corner closed. The lucky beans were not working! The bush about a km to the Luvuvu bridge has been totally devastated by the Feb 2014 floods (the same ones that took out Shingwedzi and Sirheni) and repairs to the road are still going on. I don’t know if Pafuri is yet to re-open after the floods or was just closed for that day because of all the rain. Hopefully it was just a temporary closure, because the Pafuri rest stop is one of the best in the park.

Reluctant to turn round and drive back we hung around the bridge area photographing Swallows and some White Fronted Bee Eaters. All the while we could hear a Hyena but couldn’t see it. Then all of a sudden we spotted it chasing two Waterbuck behind some thick bush next to the river. The waterbuck emerged a few seconds later, but there was no sign of the Hyena. Presumably it decided to give up the chase. We also decided to give up on Pafuri and started back towards Punda Maria.

Just south of the Punda Maria turn-off the rain stopped and our luck changed as we arrived on a bunch of Carmine and European Bee Eaters feasting on insects. Let’s face it, you can’t ask for better looking birds when it comes to these two species, and there were no complaints from my side. The Carmines were particularly good posers and not at all fussed by our driving up close. The Europeans were more complicated and preferred a greater distance. But what the hell, beggars can’t be choosers! What followed was one and a half hours of non-stop Bee Eater action and 24 Gigs of good stuff in the pocket!

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A bit further down the road in the vicinity of the Babalala rest stop we stopped to photograph some Waterbuck testing their male stupidity when a car heading south driven by a French guy pulled up and asked how much further he had to go to get to the Pafuri gate. We just had to laugh when we saw his face as we told him not only was he heading in the wrong direction and had to go the other way, but he was at least a hundred km’s or so from the gate.  It turned out he had taken a loop road and lost his bearings, which just goes to show what happens when you grow up driving on the wrong side of the road. Considering we were not far from the Babalala rest stop and it was already after 4.00pm it would be interesting to know if he made it back to Pafuri before the gate closed.

For a day that started out dull it ended with a laugh and a good haul of nice shots in the camera!

Talamati & Surrounding

From Sirheni we moved south to the Talamati and Satara area. While the bush was still very lush and green as we headed south it opened up and with it the sightings and photo opportunities improved significantly.

Talamati is a camp well known for its excellent accommodation and superb wildlife photo opportunities from the two spotlight lit camp hides and surrounding side roads. But it’s a reputation that is based on the dry season, not the wet. Sadly the nice camp and good accommodation was offset by very bad roads. One particular 10km section to the south of the camp was so bad it was almost un-driveable except for heavy duty 4×4’s. Needless to say we only drove this once because I was worried I would have to hand back a vehicle to Avis minus doors and other stuff if I drove it twice.

But Talamati delivered a few surprises. The first one was in the form of two Green Bush Snakes just meters apart and only a few meters from the lodge veranda. These snakes are often mistaken for Green Mambas and this was our first thought. A closer look at the head shape and eyes through the camera lens, and we relaxed.

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We also had a great and very funny Cheetah sighting which I’ll write about in a later blog, but as a teaser here’s one of the nice shots of this animal taken by Lynette.

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A lot of the Talamati day hours were spent riding the main road between Orpen and Satara hoping and hoping we would see the 36 pack wild dog family that inhabits the area and which everyone, except us had been seeing. But it was not to be. Long sections of the road are quite open, so when things got boring and we came across an interesting tree we stopped to try our hand at photographing the landscape and it’s moods.

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Interestingly while we were at Talamati we were stopped early each and every morning by anti poaching rangers checking we were normal camp visitors and not poachers heading home after a night of illicit business in the bush. After the second day, we became firm friends and started exchanging info on sightings. Clearly, when you see this level of activity it is evident that poaching is a very serious problem. In fact over the time we were in Kruger we saw rangers in a number of places in the bush as well as quite a large number of military vehicles. So the authorities efforts to clamp down on the problem is visible which is a good thing.

I would definitely recommend the camp in the dry season but not in the wet. But, whilst pickings were slim, it was not all bad.

Satara

The next stop Satara as usual lived up to its reputation as a superb wildlife viewing base that resulted in a number of great lion and other sightings. We had hardly unpacked when we heard about a Buffalo kill by the large lion pride that hangs around Satara just up the road. Unfortunately we were a day too late and the kill site was just inhabited by vultures. Another afternoon in the far western edge of Kruger in the Lebombo region we came across a huge pride of lions resting just off the road.

Satara is always good for wildlife, and arguably the best camp in Kruger for lions and buffalo. But this trip the best part of our Satara stay was the opportunity to photograph the family of African Wild Cats that inhabits the camp. I don’t know how many times we have stayed in this camp and until this trip we never knew it had a resident group of wild cats. At first when we first saw a cat near our hut we thought it was a long legged domesticated Moggie belonging to one of the staff. But as soon as the neighbors cameras came out we realized that there was more to the cat than first met the eye.

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As we drove the roads round Satara and to the south the number of elephant viewing increased and we had a few occasions when the thick bush obscured the animals until we were right on them. One time we saw an old bull with no tusks and on a few other occasions came across bulls with only one tusk. Similarly the further south we went the greater the number of Rhinos we saw. On one day alone we saw sixteen separate Rhino and one with a magnificent horn, that would have been close to a meter long. Absolutely wonderful!!

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Lower Sabie

No trip to Kruger should be without a few days at Lower Sabie. This time we booked tented accommodation. The tents are located in an area aside and away from the main camp, each with their own piece of bush. It’s a nice idea, but one that is spoiled by poor maintenance. While Kruger management talks about upgrading services it is failing to maintain facilities in the camps and the roads which surround them. Keeping kettles and hot plates in good working order is basic stuff. As with any business, fail the basics and you fail, full stop! The same goes for road maintenance. Simply grading a road is not maintenance unless it’s watered and compacted.

I don’t know how many times during the trip we drove down a steep recently graded incline of loose gravel already badly eroded by rainwater. Now, if I’d had a 4×4, no sweat. It would be adventure. But when you are in a normal car after 2 weeks you get tired of navigating roads so rough your teeth are falling out. If Sanparks can’t fix the problem they should simply close roads like this to normal traffic but keep them open for 4×4’s and then the engineer responsible for road maintenance can continue sleeping his life away !!

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A recently “repaired” section of road

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The tented accommodation at Lower Sabie is nice, but was spoiled by poor maintenance of basic facilities.

 

But one good development since the last time we were there a few years back is the replacement of the useless old restaurant operators at Letaba, Satara and Lower Sabie by new Mugg & Bean outlets. So, at least in these camps it’s now possible to have a good meal for a reasonable price. Good stuff Sanparks…but now do us a favor and get rid of the useless operators in the other camps especially those running Punda Maria.

Bitching aside, one of my favorite photographic locations in the Lower Sabie area is Sunset Dam. Over the years this waterhole has never failed to deliver good Hippo and other photographs, and this trip was no exception. The Hippo were not as accommodating as they sometimes are, preferring to stay on the other side well out of camera range, but when two lion decide to walk along the edge of the water and then flop down right next to your car who cares about Hippo!

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As with every trip in the past we spent hours at Sunset photographing Pied and Giant Kingfishers fishing from a dead stick 3m from a good parking spot and a bunch of weavers and a pair of Purple Herons busily building their nests nearby.

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If it was not Sunset dam, it was the roads around Lower Sabie that delivered unexpected gems. From the bridge came a Leopard, Hippos in the water on the dam side and also downstream of the rapids, as well as a myriad of different species of Swallows.

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From the roads round the camp we got huge herds of Buffalo and Elephant and two lion sightings. One of the issues with thick bush is sometimes on narrow gravel roads you are right on the elephants before you see them. In this case you have to make a quick decision whether to back off or just keep going and hope that there are no others further along. Be quick with the lens and the proximity can yield some nice gems.

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One of our best lion sightings of the trip was of two young male lions that ambled along the main road from Crocodile Bridge to Lower Sabie for seven kilometers causing untold traffic chaos as cars leaving Lower Sabie and others arriving from Crocodile Bridge piled up. Fortunately for us we were an early arrival and were perfectly placed when they finally decided to turn off and walk right up to our car. So close I could have reached out and touched them…just perfect!

Although they were still young animals you could already see evidence of harsh bush living. One was missing the end of his tail and the other blind in one eye and battered. Obviously being at the top of the food chain is no walk in the park!

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It was also just outside of Lower Sabie, after a heavy rain shower that I managed some great photos of a Fish Eagle drying himself off at the top of a dead tree not too far off the road. So, despite poor camp maintenance Lower Sabie once again delivered the goods!

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Biyamiti

The final leg of our trip was a few days at Biyamiti, one of the best of Krugers bush camps. Again, superb accommodation was let down by a poor road that spoiled the mood every time we left the camp. Anyone who has driven this road knows it’s a sandy gravel affair characterized by quite steep hills with creek crossings at the bottoms. On the second day a grader graded the road with the logic that scraping and spreading the gravel solves the problem when in fact all it does is makes it almost impossible to climb steep hills in a non 4×4. The upside, I’m now an expert in driving a hired Toyota on crappy roads. So no worries!

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But good sightings make for a good mood and you quickly forget the bad stuff. The good sightings were a fleeting but nice sighting of five Wild Dogs that agitated an already edgy bull elephant in must, our first in more than thirty years being one of the highlights of our trip.

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We also had a good lion sighting with six females sleeping on the road early one morning and on the birding side of things, we came away with some interesting photos of a Three Banded Plover feeding on the very edge of water flowing over the Biyamiti weir. How it did not get swept over I’ll never know. Simple things maybe. But simple things that kept us happy.

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The absolute highlight of the Biyamiti leg of the trip and one of the best of the trip overall was that of a huge flock of thousands and thousands of Quelias on the main road just north of Crocodile Bridge. Quelias are legendary for their large swarming flocks but it’s a long time since we saw something this big. In fact it’s by far the biggest flock I think we have ever seen. It’s hard to describe what a flock of thousands and thousands of Quelia stretching for hundreds of meters looks like and a single camera frame just does not do them justice. In fact it is very difficult to photograph birds like this. So, what do you do. You pick a spot and you shoot and hope for the best. Fortunately in between rain showers a big bunch of birds settled to dry out on a bush very close to where we were parked resulting in some great shots going into the bag.

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As mentioned before, Biyamiti has to be one of the best small camps in Kruger. The layout of the camp overlooking the Biyamiti river and the quality of accommodation is absolutely superb. It’s no wonder it’s always booked out and getting reservations in the camp is so difficult. One warning. The resident troop of Vervets are expert thieves. Leave anything laying around even for a few minutes and it’s gone!

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The view out over the Biyamiti river.

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Living the Biyamiti high life…fantastic!

 

Biyamiti camp itself is not without interest. One evening I managed some nice photos of a Chameleon and the next a baby Tortoise barely an inch in size that wandered in front of our hut. It’s stuff like this, like the snake in Talamati that make a trip. Of course the lions and leopards are what it’s all about, but the small stuff is equally fascinating.

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Leaving Biyamiti on the way out back to Johannesburg we came across the resident troop of baboons fooling around in the cool of early morning, and Lynette shot this absolutely nice frame of a very young baboon intrigued by the camera and us watching it.

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It was a very fitting end to a very wet but relaxing trip. Hitting the main road it took me nearly an hour to get to 100km/hr. For a speeder this is a sign of a good holiday!

Summary

Summing up what can I say. If you are a local anytime is a good time to visit Kruger. If you are an overseas visitor the rainy season is not the best time to visit this park. July to October when the bush is dry and the scarcity of water draws the animals together would be preferable and more productive. But in saying this, if you are a birder then I feel the wet season is when the variety of species is strongest and every thing is in their breeding colors.

If I were to come again during this period I would go for a heavier vehicle because a small light car is just not good enough for the badly rutted and rough rain season roads. During the dry season, basically any vehicle can be used.

Although game densities this time of the year are reduced by the dispersing of game due to availability of water Krugers wildlife didn’t disappoint. One of the great things about Kruger is that it’s a park where provided you are prepared to hit the road early and slowly and methodically trawl its roads and tracks you have a high chance of seeing something good every day and the big five more than once and numerous times over a week. Besides the big stuff, there is also always lots of small gems whether they be antelope or insects to look at and it is a park with phenomenal bird life, especially in the north.

Kruger’s accommodation is generally good and clean and camps within the park safe. Booking is easy and can be done online directly with Sanparks (www.sanparks.org) I recommend you book directly yourself and avoid travel agents or tour companies. Kruger is a national park where self drive is absolutely possible and is safe.

However, I have to say that having visited many times over the years there is a sense that standards are dropping. Some of the facilities in some camps need to be replaced and maintenance and daily management is clearly an issue. For personal friendly service and advice the small camps are by far the best. If you want service, then just forget the big camps like Skukuza….sadly service is just not a concept that camp staff there understand.

In general the game rangers do a good job on game drives. Obviously drives out of the small camps is much more personal than is possible in the bigger camps where more people need to be accommodated and larger vehicles are used. Over the years I have had some really good, almost personally focused drives by rangers that really know their stuff. And of course. No trip should miss at least one night drive.

My utmost respect goes to the rangers on anti poaching patrol. Clearly its a huge problem, but those guys are doing a superb job. The good thing is now you see them, either in their vehicles checking you are not up to illicit stuff or sitting on the side of the road at the end of their patrol waiting pick-up or standing in an elevated spot scanning the surrounding bush. They are doing a great job and need to know the public support their efforts!

Will we be back again. Certainly!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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