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Trip Report Trip Report: Leaf Leopards & Stone Lions: Kamping in Kruger

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The Why

As vacation travelers, Blanca and I have very seldom returned to a destination. There is a wise old adage: You can never go back. If you had a great time somewhere, leave it at that and leave your memories intact. Any revisit often just seems to be a 'been there done that'. I understand that you might disagree because there can be a comfort in returning to a place that you really enjoyed. Paris is like that for us. No, it is never the same as our first trip in 1999 but it is now like an old pair of jeans. It fits and it is comfortable.

Africa is different somehow. Not all of it, of course. One visit to the souks of Marrakech was enough, but the Sahara? Hmmm.

And then there is Kruger. The sounds, the smell, the tamed wildness of this Lowveld park is very, very addictive. We HAD to go back.

Sure, for many who experience Kruger via an all-inclusive private reserve, 3 – 4 nights is enough. It was for us as well. Like any resort anywhere, each day is only a slight variation of the regimented style that they deliver. 5:30 game drive, 10:00 breakfast. 16:30 game drive. 19:00 dinner alternating between on the deck or at the bomba. Repeat every day. They essentially deliver the game to you via guided drives in an open-sided Toyota Hilux safari jeep with a personable guide, who is in radio contact with his network of other personable guides driving their load of tourists to pre-determined sightings. No they don't chain the animals to a tree, so each drive is different, but their shared resources guarantees a great way to see the most in the least amount of time.

For us however, the real magic of Kruger was in self-discovery. After our first visit last year in May 2016, we wanted to go back. But not to a private reserve. We wanted to go deep into the public park. You see, we had uncovered a whole new type of travel experience that excited us. You are the intrepid explorer in the wilds of Africa. You leave the safe haven of the camp and you drive out on the roads yourself, eagerly anticipating that next find. Busy tar roads with a traffic jam of cars angling for a good view of a sighting. Or lonely gravel back roads where you can have them all to yourself. A guide doesn’t point that herd of elephants out, you find them. What a thrill - each and every time. Even though the roads are all well-traveled and even when another carload might have gotten there first, it is EXCITING!

The What

Kruger National Park is part of a chain of parks run by the South African government and financed by the public purse. Just like Algonquin Park in Ontario, Canada or Yosemite in California. It is a vast area that is fenced to keep the natural animals in and invasive species out. No hunting is allowed although - controversially - there is hunting in some adjacent private reserves on the western border that have taken down their fences to boost game stocks and DNA intermixing. But I won't get into that here, other than to mention that the only Kruger Private Reserves that have totally disavowed hunting are Sabi Sands, MalaMala and Manyeleti, if that is important to you.

Accommodation in the park itself is fairly basic at best. You don't go for fine dining and fancy living. Just like any national park, you can just go rent a space and pitch a tent and do it yourself. Or you can take your tent trailer and do the same. However they have added another layer by having bungalows, rondavels and larger guest houses that you can rent daily. With friggin' maid service!
But this is not 4 Star accommodation with a selection of poofy hypoallergenic pillows, king sized beds and room service at your beck and call. It is a collection of small clean stand-alone bungalows with decent spacing between to allow some privacy. Functional rooms - think 2.5 Stars maybe up to 3.5 Stars on a North American scale, with twin beds, a shower, a kitchen with utensils, and a braai. No TV. No Internet. Often no cell service. So leave your laptop and your selfie stick at home. But the maids do make up the room daily with fresh towels supplied and the braai is always cleaned.
And don't go expecting fine dining. The 12 largest rest camps (as they are called) have restaurants that are a mild step above chain fast food with only one having a real restaurant that is actually pretty good. And even it is part of a chain. These larger camps also have a store with food (for cooking) and camping supplies as well as liquor and souvenir knickknacks. And a gas station to fuel your ride.

Below these camps are a couple of tiers of smaller camps that strip away some of these services. Bushveld camps don't have stores, gas or restaurants and they only have 12 to 15 bungalows. The maid services remains, however. And below this there are rustic camps that are even more basic. See the map on next page.

All in all, you have to set your expectation levels accordingly. We aimed for a start with the normal full-service rest camps and finished with 9 consecutive nights of bushveld camps. So let's call it semi-camping . . . or Kamping in Kruger!

The How

The how is easy. SanPark is the management organization of all South African parks. They have booking offices that you can phone or email and they have a detailed website for info and for booking. www.sanparks.org. You can book 11 months out and it is highly advisable to book as early as you can. Kruger (and several other parks) are extremely popular with South Africans as well as the rest of the world.

They also have a heavily moderated forum that is a fountain of park information. Trip Advisor also has a Kruger-specific forum.

The What to Do

You drive the network of paved (locally called tar) and unpaved (referred to as dirt) roads in search of whatever you find.

Sorry, there are no rapids to kayak. No bungie jumping. No ziplines. No lakes to swim in (although numerous camps do have swimming pools). They have added bike tours at one camp and special 4X4 off-road tours in a few very specific areas recently but that's it.

Most camps have guided game drives - morning, late afternoon and night. Some offer game walks although you typically don't see much game because animals generally don't like people on foot. These activities all have an extra modest cost and have minimum attendance requirements and age restrictions.

Ian

Next Up: Berg-en-Dal Rest Camp

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    Berg-En-Dal Rest Camp April 14 - April 17
    Skukuza Rest Camp April 17
    Silonque Bush Estates April 18 (Out of park day)
    Shimuwini Bushveld Camp April 19 - 22
    Talamati Bushveld Camp April 22 - 24
    Biyamiti Bushveld Camp April 24 – 28

    Our journey to Africa started Wednesday night. 2 overnight flights. Plus 1 short hop. This also included 10+ hours of layovers. Aeroplan can now officially shove their loyalty program up their ***. The routing and the cost of reward tickets are making them unusable. YYZ Toronto - GRU São Paulo - JNB Jonannesburg

    It was 42 hours from the time we left our front door until we landed in the middle of a viscous rainstorm after the 45 minute hop from Joburg. Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport (MQP) is high on a large hill above Nelspruit in northeastern South Africa in the foothills of the Highveld. After the rain had finished lashing the airport, we rescued our luggage and secured our rental - aka the White Beast - a Toyota Fortuner which is the SUV version of its famously indestructible HiLux. The overhead canopy had collapsed on the SUV during the storm, so I had to hold it up while the attendant drove it out of its spot. A small mark on top was duly noted. Like I said, it is famously indestructible.

    So we hit the road - on the wrong side once again with RHD - but at least the White Beast was an auto. The hardest part is trying to remember that the blinkers and wiper controls are reversed as well. I went around many corners with the wipers on.

    Anyways, the rain continued for our whole drive but at least it wasn't torrential anymore. The road was fast as it winds through the mountains that spill over from nearby Swaziland. It was Good Friday but there was a surprising amount of truck traffic about so I was thankful for the numerous passing lanes. They also have a paved suicide lane that drivers use to allow faster traffic to pass. Except for some confusion at the toll booth - I thought our transponder covered the highway toll but it did not - we made it in one piece to the Spar supermarket in a plaza in Malelane near the park entrance.

    Shopping in a supermarket in a different country is always an odd experience. I even see big differences between Canada and the US. An African supermarket was different again. They had racks of non-refrigerated milk. Their meat cuts were quite different and it was all unattractively vacuumed sealed - a better preservative undoubtedly than the styro trays we get in NA. We found out - the hard way - that fruits and vegetables are weighed and priced in the aisle where they are found - not at the cash register. The food prices were a lot lower than in NA btw.

    Anyways, this was just a light shopping episode but it was successful including a stop in Spar's separate liquor store for essentials. Then it was a 15 minute drive to the Malelane Gate of Kruger Park to begin our adventure. Since Kruger has day use visitors as well as overnighters, the gate is where you get your park pass. No money changes hands if you are an overnighter. They limit the day use crowd to keep the roads manageable during peak times and Easter weekend was one of them.

    So finally, after a year of planning and anticipating, we drove into the park. Now, in most parks, this is not that big of a deal except for the nice trees. In Kruger this means that you go into animal search mode. You drive slowly. The park limits tar road to 50km/hr and dirt to 40 km/hr. And yes, we did see a speed trap with radar in our park travels so beware. Animal mode also means that both driver and passenger constantly scan the bush on either side of the road for animal sightings.

    But the Number 1 Rule is that you never, ever leave your vehicle unless you are in a safe area - camps, picnic areas, viewpoints & some bridges. Otherwise you may be dinner.

    About 5 kms in on the road to our camp we spied a big bull elephant on the right hand side munching on a bush. Now the thing about elephants is that they are primarily very peaceful giants. But you always have to remember to plan an escape route because they can crush your car or easily spear it or you with a tusk. The herd matriarch and mother's with little ones need careful watching. But the biggest danger is from single bull male elephants in must - the male equivalent of in heat. An elephant in must can be very unpredictable and downright dangerous. And guess what?

    Yes, this one was in must. Usually you can see a dark wet patch in front of their ear as a sign, but since it was raining, it was hard to see on this one. But he did take umbrage with the White Beast being so close - we were about 20 feet away. As he started to come out of the bush, I started down the road. He followed us for a short time in a lazy way giving us a great photo opp of a charging bull elephant.

    Shortly after that nice welcome to Kruger, we pulled into our rest camp for the next 3 nights - Berg-en-Dal - at around 2pm. After a brief stop at reception we had a key and drove to our bungalow. We had arrived!

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    Great detailed information, Ian. Thank you!
    There's another Fodors thread about which country in Africa is best for first safari. I think I know what you'd say!
    You had quite an arrival!!!

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    Cali . . . You are right. Kruger is now in our blood. We almost booked again for next year, but we figured we better spread it out a bit. We ran into people from the UK that have gone over 30 times!

    Eks . . . glad to have you on board.

    Ian

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    Berg-en-Dahl is a very modern camp in comparison to many in the park. Our unit had a view of the perimeter fence which is electrified to keep the nasties out. And even though you might not see them, they are there. The camp is very good-looking and well kept - as was our unit. It was all-brick with a thatched roof. One bedroom with twins, bathroom and L-shaped living room/kitchen. There is a 3rd single bed in the living room. An inside kitchen with cooktop, microwave, fridge, toaster, kettle, cutlery, some std kitchen gear etc. All the essentials you need to self-cater. It had a very comfortable covered patio with table and chairs and a nice brick braai. That's South African for bar-b-que btw. We were very pleased. BA3U #29, which in camp nomenclature means a bungalow for 3 on the camp perimeter fence. The cost per night is about $100 USD.

    The only other cost is the daily Conservation Fee which all visitors to any SanPark park in SA must pay. For non-residents it is $24 USD per adult per day. A Wild Card – an annual conservation fee charge – is $270 USD per couple so if you are in the park more than 6 nights, you might as well get one.

    For all costs, see https://www.sanparks.org/parks/kruger/tourism/tariffs.php

    After unpacking and dipping into the liquor reserve, we fired up the brand new Nitecore MH-27 flame-thrower flashlight and followed the perimeter path trail in the dark to dine on some anonymous food at the camp's restaurant - sitting outside with candle light. Ah . . .

    --

    The next morning we got an early start since we both got up at crazy hours of the night. The weather prediction was cloudy with a high in the high 20s – but no rain. After a light breakfast, we jumped into the White Beast and hit the dirt road that heads north and east from a junction just outside of the camp. Since this was our first visit to this corner of Kruger, we were very pleasantly surprised by the hills and the mountains looming in the background of our pictures. The park was lush and green with little evidence of the oncoming winter - or the drought of the last 2 years.

    The dirt road was in decent shape with some washboard and bumpy sections. I drove in full sighting mode – about 20kph or less. We were quite happy to have the Fortuner that gave us a longer wheelbase to ease the bumps and to help us see over the grass. And a high vehicle is precisely what we needed for our next big sighting . . .

    A pride of 4 lions lying about 30 feet off to the side of the road in the brush. Another driver had discovered the lions so we were second in the game and by the time we left (when the lions did too after 10 minutes), cars were streaming to the sighting. Somebody had tagged it on a Geotracker app and it was a holiday weekend . . .

    We were ecstatic to hit one of the jackpots so early. That said however, we were determined to really see all of the animals and take our time with every sighting. On our first trip last year with only 4 nights in the public park, we rushed through, racking up the animal count as fast as possible. So this time, some lesser creatures also got our deserved attention . . .

    Other highlights . . . Burchell's Zebra and impala, impala, impala - they are everywhere! I heard them referred to as: Cat Food . . .

    After a body refuel, a nap and a walk along the Berg’s lovely dam, we were ready for an afternoon drive. I should explain our team system. I drive because I am good at it and I am a million miler behind a steering wheel. I carry our older Canon Rebel xsi DSLR (with a cheap 18-135 zoom) in my lap and my secret weapon – my trusty Sony RX100 in a belt pack. I keep us on the road and scan ahead and right and try to position the white beast for good photos. My wife is the designated ‘chief photographer’ using her new Panasonic DMC-F22500 with its 24-480 zoom that she got as a retirement gift at the end of the year. My photographer cousin Lynne had recommended it. Its images are stunning but Blanca was still learning its frustrating array of features and functions. In the car, she scans left primarily but also does all-round scanning with corrections to the driver as needed. Bush! Road! Tree! Stop! Backup! You Idiot! etc . . .

    After several herds of the usual impalas, we were eager for bigger game. I spied a herd of elephants moving on a ridge line to the north and I calculated that they would intersect the dirt around the next corner near the top of the hill. I positioned the car, readied the cameras and I was right. They were coming straight toward us.

    Wow. A great sighting. It is impossible to describe the feeling of being this close to a herd of elephants. You always have to remember that this is their environment and your car is the tolerated interloper. Animals only see the car - not the occupants - so you are safe inside. But as I mentioned, elephants need respect - and a quick getaway route. We saw another elephant herd later on this drive and 2 sets of 2 rhinos about a mile apart.

    The rhinos – two adults together in one sighting and a mother and calf in the other - were white rhinoceros. Just so you know, white rhinos aren't white and black rhinos aren't black. They are both grey but often covered in brown or red mud. They have different diets: the white has a flat mouth for grazing and the black has a rounded mouth for browsing leaves. We did not see a black rhino on this trip. SanPark is very sensitive about their rhinos due to the very real scourge of poaching. The camp sighting boards do not allow rhino locations to be pegged and it is wise to disable GPS co-ords on any pics you post and never publicly post the locale, because the sick dudes have the Internet too and rhinos are territorial.

    It was a good first day. Back to camp, we got down to some really serious business. My very first braai.

    Since our stays later in this trip were all bushveld camps without restaurants, I had to get this down. You see, I am lazy at home and I use a gas grill and an electric smoker. I have not grilled with charcoal or real wood for a thousand years. We had bought some steaks (labelled porterhouse but we call these sirloin steaks) at Spar along with charcoal and some firewood and starter and I was going to dive into the South African ritual of a braai.

    This trial run worked and very successfully I might add. We dined well that night and yes, a wood grill is better. And I will give you a tip here as well . . . if you ever run across Montreal Steak Spice, buy it. It was invented by Jewish delis in Montreal that are famous for their Montreal Smoked Meat – a pastrami variation. The spice is very yummy stuff and we brought a supply from home.

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    It’s Excursion Day!

    We got up feeling somewhat refreshed from the jetlag. As I waited for the camp – and my spouse – to wake up, I spied a couple of photo worthy critters around. A timid bushbuck came out of the bush near the perimeter fence and a bevy of tree squirrels cavorted in our yard. A very nice way to greet the morning.

    Then it was in the car for an excursion out of the park. Of course, Kruger had some more surprises for us on the drive out.

    Blanca spied a giraffe off to our left and I stopped the car. Then she asked if I would move back a bit to take a picture and we were both startled by another giraffe standing in the middle of the road 20 ft in front of us. Now where did he come from? Anyways, he was a great photo opp – especially with the backdrop of the local hills . . .

    Now if you’ll allow me a slight deviation from Kruger . . . When I was planning this trip I ran across info about The Jane Goodall Institute Chimpanzee Eden sanctuary, just 15 minutes south of Nelspruit. My wife really wanted to go because it is doubtful that we will ever get to Central Africa to see them in the wild. The sanctuary houses rescue chimps that had been pets or performing animals when younger. Most were malnourished on arrival and many still suffer the psychological effects of their previous harsh captivity. They can never be released into the wild.

    The sanctuary is a small part of a larger fenced reserve in the rolling hills just east of R40. They have three compounds – mixed grassland and dense forest - each with their own small group of chimps. Two of the compounds have viewing platforms where you can view the chimps safely behind a sturdy electrified fence. The staff uses the three guided daily tours to give the chimps some of their daily protein requirement – macadamia nuts – that they love. Yes, they are still ‘performing’ chimps but at least they can come and go and do it on their own terms to some degree. They seemed healthy and happy.

    A worthwhile visit, both to see these amazing animals and to despair over the cruelty of man.

    --

    For the pictures that go with this report, see:

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/albums/72157681374427880

    Or if you want to see this report with embedded clickable pictures, go to:

    http://imcarthur.weebly.com/kruger-park-2017.html

    Ian

    Next Up: Skukuza Rest Camp

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    Skukuza Rest Camp

    The next morning, we decamped from Berg-en-Dal for a one night stay at Skukuza. This was a transit hop as we were to head out of the park for one night to drive the panoramic route. We really liked Berg-en-Dal. It was very well maintained – both the grounds and the bungalows. But the sun was shining and it was a gloriously warm day and it was time to move.

    The park was still very busy on this Easter Monday and every sighting on H3 north was jammed. Afsaal was particularly busy and not worth more than a washroom stop due to the irritating hordes.

    Along the way . . . a Tawny eagle, kudu, a elephant mother and child, yellow-billed hornbill everywhere, a woolly-necked stork who gave us a spread-wing display, several elephants in a mud wallow, a BIG white rhino, and a VERY close encounter with another elephant bull in must. This one made me nervous because other vehicles crowded in – almost boxing me next to the ellie who was calmly eating a tree. I gracefully exited . . . wondering about the experience level of the non-SanPark guide who had nosed his safari jeep in with a load of wide-eyed tourists . . .

    We pulled into our rondavel in Skukuza LR2W #94 just after 2pm. The maid was still there, as well as a lawn full of vervet monkeys. These were the first monkeys we had seen on this trip so my wife got excited and demanded a picture of her with the pests. She got a little too close and 2 attacked her – biting only her pant leg which made her scream and jump back. I had to step in and tell them to back off – which they did. She learned a good lesson and she now carries a monkey stick whenever they are near.

    This was our 2nd visit to Skukuza. We rented a simple 2 room rondavel – bedroom and bathroom with an outdoor kitchen. $136 USD per night excluding conservation fee. The cupboards all had monkey-proof latches and the refrigerator was caged. As I said: pests. We also had a nice outdoor sitting/eating area with a braai and a view of the Sabie River. A camp employee had planted a satellite dish in our front lawn (which is shared space btw) to mar the view. We were just west of the restaurant area. Overall, the rondavel looked pretty tired. This is a busy camp and this was a premium location so it gets a lot of use. That said, it was time for an overhaul. It wasn’t bad but just tired.

    A late afternoon drive was not terribly productive around the busy dirt roads near Skukuza. The highlight was a family of dwarf mongoose that was living right beside the road . . .

    Then it was dinner at the Cattle Baron. This steak-centric restaurant is head and shoulders THE BEST restaurant in the whole park. Crazy cheap by NA standards with a good menu – including some game if you are so inclined. We splurged on steaks and a nice bottle of SA Pinotage. The service was slowish but when the meal arrived, it was almost all at once with the salad only minutes before the main. I remember the same last year. Our server was very pleasant and we had a great meal for $60 USD . . . a ridiculously cheap price to us.

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    Panoramic Route & Phalaborwa

    The next morning we headed out of the park to drive the Panoramic route. We exited the park at Paul Kruger Gate and did the slow crawl to and through Hazyview. This is a notorious speed zone with crooked cops so I was very lawful. But I guess I didn’t read about the mountain climb through the pine plantations or the twisty potholed roads that we would encounter shortly thereafter. We were basically driving from the Lowveld up to the escarpment-like edge of the Highveld. I say escarpment-like because it was a westwardly-northerly declining mountain range and we had to loop around its edge and descend again later that afternoon back to the Lowveld. Six hours that turned into eight.

    A note about this route. If you see a sign with just an exclamation mark, slow down. It means that there are potholes ahead. Some signs mention that as well and some don’t. The potholes in the pavement aren’t craters but they can bend a wheel and flatten a tire if hit the wrong way. Just sayin’ . . .

    All went well except God had shut the blinds at the first attraction: the God's Window view site. It was in a cloud with no view while the rest of drive was sunny. We got some good pictures of fog, though. I have heard that it only has about 30 clear days per year . . .

    Then it was further up the road to Bourke's Potholes which are in the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve. This is a major tour bus stop with lots of bus parking, ticky-tacky shops, a crappy restaurant etc etc. We walked down the stone path to the potholes which are small but pretty impressive water cut sandstone formations in a canyon narrows. A solo baboon quietly sauntered up and planted himself at a picnic table at Bourke’s as if he just came out as a photo opp for tourists.

    And the last stop on the Panoramic Route was the Three Rondavels, which are 3 peaks that look like the small round African huts that are called rondavels. Think of it as South Africa's Green Grand Canyon.

    After the Rondavels, the journey took longer than expected as we traversed the Abel Erasmus mountain pass on R36. Construction with lane reductions and construction vehicles – and goats and cows on the road – even in the mountain switchbacks. Certainly some stunning views along the way but as driver, my job was to keep us on the road. After we came down to the lowveld again, it was a high speed run on a lonely road sandwiched between game reserves over to the major north-south road for the rest of the drive.

    We finally made it to Silonque Bush Estate just outside of Phalaborwa around 4pm after a quick stop at the Spar in town. To say the road from Phalaborwa was pitiful is an understatement. However, we had a very nice house with no close neighbours in the middle of the bush. It was quite spooky actually, but other than howling hyenas - which were heard and not seen - the only wildlife we saw was a profusion of owlet moths that invaded our dinner, our patio, our kitchen . . .

    Next: Shimuwini Bushveld Camp

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    Shimuwini Bushveld Camp

    At $120 USD for the night, the Silongue worked very well as a staging point to go back into the park. The next morning we hit the Spar on the edge of Phalaborwa (very near the park gate) to pick up our pre-ordered pre-frozen meat and general groceries for our next 9 nights of Bushveld camps. I had done some research and all of the Spars near park entrances will pre-freeze a meat order if you give them a few days’ notice.

    So 9 nights . . .

    Yeah, that’s right. 2 60+ citified Canadians who haven’t camped in 20 years are diving in with both feet. OK, it is civilized camping in bungalows but it was still going to be an adventure. The last time we camped I threw all of our camping gear in the dumpster on the way out of the park and I swore: Never again. Our kids still laugh about it.

    Btw the staff at the Spar were all very helpful. Ditto the attached Spar liquor store which we hit for other essentials to survival in the African wilds. We were glad we had lots of room in the Fortuner.

    Then it was into the park for the drive to Shimuwini with a slight detour to the Masorini picnic site for lunch. The wildlife sightings lessened as we drove north but so did the traffic. We drove the S51 loop by Sable Dam but only a family of kudu crossing the road was visible as the heat was rising. Even the birds were elsewhere.

    Further north we had our daily dose of elephants enjoying the Ngwenyeni River. The landscape was particularly gorgeous here. We also saw a lovely giraffe and a family of zebras – including a very small youngster. They look likes toys when they are small.

    Then it was into the private Shimuwini Rd to our first bushveld camp.

    The bungalows at Shimuwini are all in a line facing the Letaba River and its entertaining wildlife display. We had a large unit with a bath, bedroom, interior kitchen and an upstairs loft with another 2 singles. A GD4 that cost $99 per night. A bargain.
    This night my braai was a lazy smoker. I poked it and prodded it and finally just fed it more fuel. Those little round balls of accelerant just don’t work that well unless you use ½ a dozen of them. Once I finally got it going, we sampled Oumas boerewors (a uniquely spiced South African coiled sausage) for the 1st time. Of course, 2 of us could only eat about ½ of it. Yum.

    Shimuwini was a very civilized camp for us to start our marathon of Bushveld camps. Our bungalow GD4 #9 was certainly overkill for 2 people. Roughly around the center of the small camp with a great view of the river. And that meant its many inhabitants. A pod of hippos was always moving around in the water – as were the crocs. On the far shore we saw either impalas or waterbuck almost continuously. Even a couple of the hippos came out to munch riverside grass one day. The only downside to our bungalow was it lacked a seating area with an overhang so you would be stuck inside if it rained.

    The few oddities of Shimuwini are well-documented but I will repeat here for those who have not been – and yes, you should go. The one and only electrical plug in the whole bungalow is behind the refrigerator so you have to have a multi-plug adaptor to have 2 things plugged in simultaneously. As well, they ask you to unplug from 6pm to 6am to reduce load and shut down the camp’s generator at night to stifle the noise. And the seal on the refrigerator door – that also lacked a handle – required superhuman strength to open. And I am not exaggerating. Judging from the scars on the seal many others used the ‘knife in the door to break the interior air seal’ trick to open it. We had to. And the fridge did not have a freezer so the camp has a communal freezer at the gate and each bungalow gets its own basket. The system works well, you just have to remember to take something out by midday to eat that night.

    But those are all just idiosyncrasies rather than problems though. This camp is great. Very quiet except for the river noise at night – crocs, hippos etc – not to forget the hyenas every morning across the river. Wonderful. This camp gives you a real feel for the wilderness. We loved it. Our favorite camp so far hands down.

    At the end of the Shimuwini road in a big dry riverbed, a couple of Cape Buffalos had taken up residence. One male always gave us dirty looks as we passed. Since the reputed cell service didn’t work in camp - at the bench by the jacaranda tree in front of #2 – we decided to head up towards Mopani. It did finally start at Mooiplaas picnic area allowing my wife to let her aged mother know that we haven’t been eaten yet (she is 89 & my wife typically calls her several times a day). We continued up to Mopani for lunch.

    At Mopani, we had lunch at the lookout deck. There were no free tables but a couple from Namibia kindly asked us to join them. We had a great chat and poor service from the restaurant – the labour dispute has managers working the tables . . . After lunch, we encountered a large herd of elephants – probably 50 or more - just south of the Mopani cutoff. They still had wet mud from a splash in the river as we carefully drove through the middle of the herd.

    And this brings us to the title of this tale.

    There was a large field of tan-coloured grass swaying in the breeze beside the highway south of Mooiplaas. As we drove by it, my wife called a Stop. It was a false alarm. She thought she spied a cat but it was just leaves. On our return coming back from Mopani, I made the same mistake in exactly the same area. It was a bush in full autumn colours that was shaped like a big cat. And that’s where the phrase ‘leaf leopard’ came from. It was our code for a false alarm. Like: “Oh, it’s just a leaf leopard.” And stone lions were buff-coloured rocks under trees that looked like sleeping lions.

    The next two days were lazy days for us. We needed to slow down and chill a bit and this camp was certainly worthy for that. It was one week from the time we arrived at Berg-enDal. Whew!

    We did go out for morning drives - or should I say, morning opportunities to check texts & emails @ Mooiplaas. I can live without it but my wife can’t. It gave us a good reason for a drive . . .

    The 2nd afternoon, two nyalas hopped the front fence and were wandering around bewilderedly in camp. We heard the noise of them crashing in but we didn’t have a camera ready. A third one came over on his 2nd attempt. Amazing that they brave the electric fence for the inviting green lawn of the camp.

    Later, while my spouse had an afternoon nap, I wandered down to the hide. Since almost no one was in camp during the day, I had it to myself. The hide is positioned at the extreme east end of the camp above a narrowing of the river with a small pool below and the larger river to the right in front of the camp. I saw 2 or 3 hippos swimming and munching in the pool. Then there was a slash as one of them decided to migrate into the larger river. Right time and right place for some great hippo pictures.

    After the usual braai we were happy to get together with some ‘mites (SanPark Forum posters). Peregrine Falcon & Dassie Delight (Neil & Carol) they joined us for some adult beverages. We had stolen their favorite bungalow unwittingly. We solved all of the world’s problems and made new friends. It was a nice night.

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    Talamati Bushveld Camp

    Now it was time to leave the major slice of goodness called Shimuwini. Yes, we loved the camp. If/when we return it will be on the list. But we could not doddle because our next destination was 4 hours 43 minutes away according to Google Maps. Another Bushveld: Talamati. I had originally booked Olifants and for the next day I was kind of regretting the change. And then . . . well, you will just have to wait . . .

    Of course, that 4:43 was not Kruger time. I estimated about 6 to 7 hours and that was pretty much what it was. With a pit stop at Letaba and groceries and fuel at Satara plus some slowdowns for the usual goodies along the way.

    Speaking of which, our first sighting was a beautiful giraffe as we drove out S141 for the last time. I opted to stay on tar for most of the journey to try to maintain some level of predictability. Up H14 to H1 then all the way down to the Orpen-Satara Rd. On the way, we encountered another nice bull elephant in must. But he wasn’t crazed this morning but calm and simply posed quietly while I stayed ready to rocket away if he changed his mind.

    After a brief visit to the Letaba ‘facilities’ it was more tar H1. Just south of the Olifants cutoff, 2 hyenas loped across the road in front of us but we just got a ‘butt in the bushes picture’ of one. We slipped into the N’wamanzi Viewpoint forgetting to roll our windows up as we got out. Yeah, amateurs. I should know better since I troll the forums. Monkeys, of course. But we got very, very lucky . . . they only hit the car that followed us in which was a load of 20s somethings. A vervet jumped in and snagged an apple from their car as my wife called out a warning to all. And then we all raced over to close up. They are amazing hit and run artists. The monkeys were the show here despite the magnificent view with ellies off in the distance. Here is the thief with his prize.

    More tar road heading south followed with surprisingly our first wildebeest of the trip sighting and the usual kabillion impalas until we stopped at Satara for supplies. Then it was a big turn west on the Orpen Road with a very nicely mudded elephant to greet us. I bet the elephants love all of the water this year.

    Before long we cut south on the bone-jarring pitifully corrugated S36. It was a painful road. If you went too slow, the SUV seemed to fall into a bounce rhythm that only a shot of throttle would quell. While rhythm on a dance floor is a good thing, it was not appreciated here. And if you went too fast, you were just a dust plume and you could not sight game well. We stopped in at the Muzandzeni picnic area for a quick bite and some respite from the road torture. Just before this stop, a herd of buffalo were grazing in the distance but there was not much sign of life here. And at the Shimangwaneni Dam only some vultures were in evidence.

    Turning west again on S145 we came to the oddly tree-split road. It certainly was much greener here than further north where fall was in swing. But the corrugation did not really let up. A fast – too fast – driver came up behind us. I yielded by diving off-road and he sped off. I forgot to snap his plate but I suspect that he was a guide at one of the hidden resorts in the nearby concessions here since this road seemed to have some shuttle travel as well.

    Just after 2pm we pulled into the gate at Talamati. It was somewhat of a letdown after the beautiful Shimuwini. Our bungalow – a GC6 – was large but it certainly looked as if it had seen better days. I can’t say that it was dirty but like Skukuza, it should be put on the ‘in need of a fresh’ list ASAP. The bird hide and the pond were as promised except the bulk of the latter was obscured by vegetation from the hide. And since it was the middle of the afternoon it was vacant except for a few ducks. The bark of baboons gave us a warning of their presence in the sunken dry riverbed behind the bungalows but we never had a raid for the 2 nights we stayed. This was our most expensive bungalow ($189 USD per) since I had to grab what was left when I booked it. A large 6 bed unit with 2 bathrooms, an inside kitchen and a large covered patio with couches and a dining table.

    This night I finally resolved my braai issues. I now have a 100% start-every-time method. Use ½ block of the white block firestarter that is available from the camp shops. Add a smattering of briquettes as a core. Add some dry kindling. And teepee the dry split logs on top. Light it and go sip a beverage for an hour. Turn the logs and wait until the flames subside and braai.

    Little did we know as we went to bed that the next day we were going to have one of THOSE sightings.

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    We didn’t get on the road until late - around 8 or so. I walked over to check the blind when I got up at 5am but there was nothing but wildebeests in the distance. We had walked the perimeter the afternoon before and it is a nice small camp with a sunken dry river on its northern and eastern border with all of the bungalows backing on to it in a L shape. Bushbuck liked the trail as well – both outside the fence and inside. The bird hide is in one inner corner facing a wetland and the waterhole and hide are at the other, opposite the reception. Overall very nice but it lacked the entertainment of the river that Shimuwini and other camps have. I had great hopes for the waterhole. I think everyone else in camp did too as it was a popular stop.

    We had been close to this area last year with 2 nights spent at Hamilton’s in the Mluwati Concession 10 – 15kms to the southeast, after our initial 4 nights of public Kruger. It was May and the whole area was drought-devastated with little grass anywhere. Dry, dry, dry. We had good game sightings but the Hamilton’s guide had to really work it. So it was great to see that the area was green again. It did seem sparser from a game standpoint than the south.

    Anyways, we set out with a smattering of wildebeest around in the field south of camp. One was co-operative.

    Further west on S145, we saw some elephants off road in the bush, which gave us our daily dose of elephants, but they were too buried to photograph. Bumping slowly along, we met a car and the driver and I compared notes. (That’s one of the things I love about Kruger: the comradery displayed by many.)

    His report was better than mine. Much, much better. He said two of the magic words of Kruger:

    WILD DOGS

    On S36 just a kilometer or two north of the junction. Only 3 or 4 kms away. Yeah baby! Off we went . . .

    And then, with adrenaline pumping, just a kilometer after we turned on from S145, we saw 2 dogs walking into the bush 300m ahead. Bingo! By the time we got up there however, they had melted in. I slowly drove up the road a kilometer or so while we carefully scanned the bush.

    Nothing. Nada. Rien.

    So I turned the Beast around and we headed back very slowly.

    Then coming around a corner . . .

    Yes, a pack of about 13 wild dogs was coming right at us trotting on the road. With our cameras snapping wildly, the pack split when it reached us with dogs going either side of the SUV, seemingly completely and absolutely ignoring our presence. I saw them looking at us or at least at the White Beast but they didn’t care. We were not a threat and we weren’t tasty enough.

    So I turned the Beast around and we followed them very slowly. Just us and the dogs alone on the road. The core kept moving slowly ahead – stopping occasionally to mill around - while others went into the bush and looped back out. Acting . . . well . . . just like you would expect a bunch of dogs to act.

    At the bottom of the hill, one found something smelly off to one side and just like any domestic dog, he promptly rolled in it. And several of his buds took turns rolling in it while others watched with interest.

    We followed the pack for a kilometer or so, finally joined by another car with a solo driver coming up slowly behind us. He kept pace behind me as we ‘herded’ the pack. At least 2 of the dogs had tracking collars. The park keeps track of the dog packs because of the danger of canine distemper or rabies outbreaks. They have had to eradicate some infected packs to keep disease out of the park.

    As we watched them, they were frequent interacting and always watching the rest of the pack

    Another car appeared at the top of the next hill and the pack decided it was time for a rest and the leaders promptly lay down on the road while others went off into the bush to investigate things.

    By the time we left, we had spent over 30 minutes with the dogs. What a rare event! It certainly boosted our (my) spirits that had been flagging due to the lack of cat sightings. Other than the lions on our first day we were really short on predator sightings. This one was a big WOW!

    For those of you not familiar with Kruger, a wild dog sighting is one of the major goals for many. Their numbers have been decimated in the wild and Kruger has several packs totaling somewhere just north of 500 dogs. Some long-time Kruger visitors have only had fleeting glimpses – or none at all – so our sighting was spectacular!

    After that, we just chilled for the rest of the day with a late afternoon drive that produced some buffalo and our 2nd daily dose of elephants. Yes, we saw elephants every day we were in the park!

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    Biyamiti Bushveld Camp

    Once again, it was time to pack and change camps. Talamati was not our favourite camp. Our CG6 (#4) was large and had a great private outdoor patio but the sunken river wasn’t really visible so there was little to see – except for the nocturnal insect visitors (praying mantis & other ‘sticks’). I guess we had been spoiled by Shimuwini. It was also very tired inside and certainly in need of some loving. The famed waterhole was popular – wildebeest, baboons, geese, ducks, antelope and waterbuck – but with vegetation it was half obscured from the hide.

    We had a long drive ahead of us, with Biyamiti our next destination. So it was dirt for a while. The painful S36 (and yes it really was) and east on S25 past Hamilton’s and out to the H1. We had driven in this road last summer in the height of the drought and at the very least; the road was in much better shape. What a huge difference, with the barren bush now replaced with lush grass and healthy shrubs everywhere.

    We ran into another yellow ribbon (SanPark Forum member) along the way – so a shout out to Mike & Trish: Nice to meet you!

    Game was still sparse however, with only some impala and giraffes hanging out and a Burchell's Coucal (lark-heeled cuckoo) at the end of the road.

    Not much was in evidence south on H1 to Tshokwana but just after we turned south on H10, we were entertained by a pair of giraffes doing the mating dance. They moved in unison and smacked each other with their necks and heads as oblivious drivers zoomed by this bizarre ritual. We had seen this on an Attenborough special but never thought that we would witness it (and we saw it twice!). The pictures weren’t great because of distance and vegetation but we did get a video . . .

    Other sightings: fish eagles, a whole mess of Cape vultures with a seriously smelly roadside kill, another ‘toy’ zebra with fuzzy hair, a lizard and some elephants as usual. And who knew that elephants had such long eyelashes – and ear hair!

    After about 6 hours on the road, we finally arrived at Biyamiti. Now THIS is a camp! We knew right away that we would love it. Our bungalow had a large sitting area with 2 extra twins, a bath and a bedroom. The kitchen and dining area were on the porch with an expansive backyard – nicely separated from our neighbours with scrub. All cabinets had locks and we were asked to wedge the fridge into the cupboard to keep the monkeys out. There was even a birdbath that I diligently kept filled for the many visitors who used it.

    Biyamiti fit. Y’know . . . just like a well-worn pair of gloves. We got out of the Beast and walked into the yard and down towards the magnet of the river that backed our #5 NCO2+2V. It was mostly dry but a pond with ducks was opposite us on the far shore with a rocky abutment thrusting upward beyond. A bench near the fence path completed the picture. Yeah, this would do nicely. $117 USD per night.

    The next morning, before our drive, we were treated to a herd of 50+ buffalo doing a quick splash through the waterhole in the riverbed. Then it was out exploring the Biyamiti Private Rd, the Biyamiti Weir and the surrounding dirt roads.

    I loved the windy roads and the hills in this area. Great for driving. And we drove a lot seeing rhinos, elephants, klipspringers, storks and on and on. Everything but cats . . . They were on the sightings boards. We talked to numerous people who had great lion and leopard sightings. There was even a leopard who frequented the Biyamiti Rd. But we didn’t see him . . .

    I must admit that with our Kruger stay winding down, I was suffering from the ‘end of vacation blues’ and as above I was somewhat disappointed. Where were the cats? I know that it is strictly luck of the draw what you see in the bush and I know that we had had a lot of great sightings – including the phenomenal wild dog jackpot – but I really wanted another cat or two.

    We went for a SanPark Sunset drive one night. $25 USD pp. You start around 4:30 in a 10-seater Toyota Safari open canopied truck and return to camp 7:30 – 8pm in the dark. While it is nice to ride for a while rather than drive yourself, I find the portion after dark to be really, really boring. Jack-lighting animals is just not that much fun and other than a rhino, we didn’t really see anything great.

    We drove to Crocodile Bridge Camp on our 2nd to last day for supplies but their meat selection was uninspiring, so we decided to make a supply run to Koomatipoort. On the way back, just 1 km into the park, we saw a few cars pulled over to the left. We plopped in behind them and there it was . . . a cat . . . and not just any cat . . . but a cheetah.

    It was an adult and it was aiming for the road. It stopped several times to reconnoiter before walking out onto the tar 2 cars ahead of us. And then in the brush, 2 youngsters appeared and proceeded to follow her. She waited for them and they all crossed the road . . .

    Mom kept going but the young’uns stopped cautiously and stashed themselves in a bush for a couple of minutes. On the move again, one secured a perch on a log and wasn’t happy when its sibling approached. Interestingly, my picture of this clearly shows an impala in the background watching with alarm.

    Okay now. Another cat sighting, so I was feeling better. And further up the tar road a pair of lions were flaked out under a tree, but the photos look just like the aforementioned rock lions. The rest of the day was anti-climactic although we did see elephants in the Biyamiti riverbed and a rhino or two elsewhere.

    And then we reached our last full day in the park. Sad? You bet! And while I would like to tell you about an amazing sighting we had, it was a rather lack-lustre day.

    We drove Croc Bridge Rd down to the Gardenia Bird hide and looped back through the weir. Both times we drove this section of Croc Bridge Rd were washouts btw. It was even very thin with impala (ditto Randspruit Road and Bume as well). At Gardenia Hide, some turtles were sunning on a ‘rock’ in the middle of the pond. But it wasn't a rock it was a hippo’s back. Blanca got quite fascinated by the colouring of some some Egyptian geese that were way off to one side. Along the way - across a river - I spied a rhino that was missing his back horn etc . . .

    Late afternoon, we decided to head out the other way on S25 – toward Croc Bridge Camp. I should explain that Biyamiti Camp is on a private road - for residents only. It is hilly and windy with lots of game potential. But I was shooting for a leopard sighting since there had been some both on our road and on S25 which roughly follows the Crocodile River. This road passes through several ecozones so there are lots of varied sightings. We spied 2 young male giraffes ‘dancing’. Further along, a collection of marabou storks stopped us. Rather ugly things to be honest. And while we were stopped, a hyena purposefully came out of the bush and crossed the road behind the White Beast. A little later, a nice elephant heard paused for us and us for them until the matriarch told me it was time to move.

    The next morning, while my wife packed for us to leave, I went for a solo drive – rhinos and elephants again. One rhino I saw as a grey blob at the end of a diagonal trail. And as I watched, I realized that he/she was coming right at me. I blocked the path for as long as I dared and then I backed up to clear the end of the path to let him pass. Amazing!

    And with that we drove slowly out through the park with a couple of warthog sightings to bid us goodbye.

    We exited the park for the drive to Nelspruit and the airport for the long haul home. A short hop to JNB, an overnight South African Air flight to London Heathrow and then a last leg on Air Canada to Toronto. Of course, the SA flight left late which seriously time-pressured us at Heathrow. As transit passengers, we had to disembark and go down a 3 story escalator, walk on 4 moving sidewalks for a mile, go up 3 floors on another escalator, go through security, go through a passport check, reverse the complete route to get to a gate that was only 3 gates from where we landed. It was very, very tense and we were the last passengers to board. But we did.

    The flight was only ½ full which was very nice and we got a good glimpse of the tip of Greenland at 38K feet . . .

    Ian

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    Conclusion:

    We have now been to Kruger National Park twice, staying in its public rest camps and self-driving the network of roads in the park. The first time – in 2016 – was a 4 day toe in the water and it was combined with a 2 night stay in a private camp (Hamilton’s in Mluwati Concession) which allowed us to also have a more traditional safari experience. See http://imcarthur.weebly.com/hamiltons-tented-camp.html

    While we really liked the deluxe treatment of Hamilton’s, we walked away feeling that it was a manufactured event. And of course, it is a cookie-cutter tour essentially like any other cookie cutter tour. Repeatable and profitable for the tour operators and booking agents and the customer gets a ‘guaranteed’ wildlife experience. You can go to Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Botswana and South Africa and get a safari that is much like every other safari. Of course, the geography is different and the animal content varies but it is guides driving tourists to see game.

    But . . . as travelers, both my wife and I much prefer to go it alone. Sure it takes more planning but I love travel planning so that is no chore. So if you want a safari but are like us and want a totally independent option, look at Kruger.

    Btw our total cost excluding international airfare was just under $5K USD for 2 weeks. Accommodation, food, booze, internal flight, vehicle – all in. And we didn't pinch pennies so it could be done for much less.

    Ian

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