Skukuza 16-17th February

Skukuza 16-17th February

Sunday, 16th

The air is dead still as I arrive first at the gate at 5am. The sky is bright with a few clouds – just right for Lake Panic. 5.30am and I set off ahead of the pack, turning right at the 4-way crossing and then moving rapidly along the H11 towards Paul Kruger Gate. Just before the Msimuk stream bridge I come across a car (how did he get there?) and next to it strolls a very relaxed and streetwise male leopard.

Unfortunately he is walking away from me towards the bridge but I do manage a few photos before the scene is swamped by tour bakkies that begin pouring in.

Staring up at tourists in a OSV bakkie

The rather harassed leopard finally jumps over the barrier and makes his way into the reeds of the streambed below where he is lost to view.

I arrive at the wonderful Lake Panic hide a little late but there is no one there so I settle down in my favourite corner. As to be expected the lake is full but I have never seen it so choked with vegetation. There are no exposed sandbanks at all meaning no wading birds. The usual fish eagles, kingfishers, herons, darters, cormorants and others are beginning their day and in the early light the photographic possibilities are endless.

Malachite Kingfisher
Immature Green-backed Heron
Two Pied Kingfishers squabbling

I am in heaven and my mind strays to what we may be doing back in ‘civilization’. Awful morning TV news, go to the shops, some unpleasant neighbours worrying us, jammed in the traffic, the madding crowds – no, no, Kruger is the perfect refuge for us and how happy, blessed and content we are here. “Kruger Park is our reward for living in South Africa” said someone. How very, very true.

After an hour the first person arrives – a fellow photographer, Neal Cooper, who comes down regularly from Pretoria for his weekend unwind. I often get good advice from these people about the latest photographic equipment and this morning was most helpful. Although I do have excellent gear it does rapidly become obsolete so I must keep my ears open.

After a most pleasant couple of hours and with the light quality deteriorating, I make my way back to camp. This is a strategic blunder as Renette is in spring-cleaning mode. She is determined to rid the caravan of ten days of bachelor neglect and the rest of the morning is spent sadly shuttling to and fro to the laundry, cleaning, sweeping all the while dreaming of that superb Lake Panic.

There is an autumnal touch to the air today as we enjoy an excellent lunch on the restaurant deck next to the Sabie River. The Lowveld really can turn it on sometimes and today more so.

At 4pm we set out on one of our favourite evening drives out along the H1-2 across the low-level Sabie Bridge. We pause on the Sand River bridge with the water gushing beneath us. Then on to the S83 Maroela Loop where we creep along admiring this oh so attractive road.

Maroela Loop S83

But our plans begin to unravel when a tour bakkie coming from the opposite direction stops us and ask for a rope to help extract a stuck vehicle on the Mutlumuvi causeway ahead. He turns and we follow him quickly arriving at the following scene.

The Parks people should never have allowed the road to be open as a thick, water-logged layer of sand overlays the concrete – far too much for a two wheel drive vehicle with narrow tyres. The stranded vehicle (from Rustenburg) is now resting on its chassis on the sand and it is going to take quite something to move it – quite beyond the capability of my feeble Quantum and the other 2×4 bakkie. Another 4×4 tour bakkie full of tourists arrives but using my rather short tow rope, fails to move the well bogged down Ford. Fortunately, yet another 4×4 bakkie arrives and doubling the tow-ropes, allows the tow to be performed from firmer ground. With much sucking, scraping and poor driving, the Ford is finally extracted and we all turn and head back the way we came. But not before two hyenas come nosing around battle site looking for titbits.

With our concentration a little ruffled, we head back towards camp enjoying what is left of a beautifully cool evening.

Low-level Sabie River bridge

Monday, 17th

Another clear, still and crisp morning as we leave the Skukuza gates at 5.30am. Turning left at the 4-way crossing, we note the stench of rotten carrion in the air and the nearby trees are packed with vultures. Word has it that two clans of hyenas, some twenty five in total, had a pitched battle in the road yesterday as they fought for dominance at the dead elephant carcass lying screened nearby in the bushes.

We are quickly in the lead going down the H4-1 Sabie River road and, this being February, we do not see another car for an hour and a half. What a pleasure. Approaching the high level bridge, we round a corner to find a leopard at the side of the road some 100m distant. But before I can scramble my camera, it slinks off and disappears into the long grass, phantom like. Did we really see it?

Coffee on the bridge as the first sun rays play across this truly magnificent scene. The Sabie is far and away the most beautiful river in Kruger with its clear waters, reedbeds, sandy banks and rocks, all lined by giant riverine trees. An outstanding scene at sunrise.

We push on down one of our favourite roads – the Salitje S30. Little snippets of interest constant pop up but I suppose that our sightings would not be seen to be too good.

Salitje S30

However, this must be one of our most pleasurable mornings, passing massive trees, rocky koppies and all the while hearing the rush of water from the river below.

The birds are in full voice and the smells are so beautifully bushveld. You Kruger fans will understand that this place is far, far more than about the Big 5.

Sycamore Fig tree

At the circular pond some 10kms along the road we have our breakfast and then head back to camp. Unfortunately, we have a number of pressing matters to attend to which is a great pity on a day such as this.

The weather at midday is balmy, typical of an April day. This afternoon we choose to go out on the S65 road some distance west of Skukuza. This is a lovely evening road although popular with OSV’s. (Open Safari Vehicles). We pass two coming from the other direction and immediately thereafter Renette gazes down into the grass at the side of the road – straight into the eyes of a male leopard. Incredible. He is lying about 3m from the road in the shade and I would like to know how many vehicles drove straight past him.

So close is he that I must use my smallest lens. I am wary of our situation as there have been a number of instances of leopards attacking people in open vehicles. One leap and he can come through our window.

This is one of my more unusual leopard sightings. So relaxed and laid back is our leopard (at 5m range) that he pays scant attention to the vehicle starting up and manoeuvring. Another vehicle arrives and the young couple are overcome with joy at looking into the eyes of an elusive leopard at point blank range. An extraordinary sighting.

This is so typically Kruger. Quiet periods and then suddenly out of the blue – wallop. We drift back to camp having enjoyed a beautiful day. We have now been 26 days here on our current visit and are enjoying it more and more the longer we are here. What a paradise.