Day 4 of My Kruger National Park Adventure 2013

DAY 4:

I was up just before sunrise on the morning of Day 4. It was still bitterly cold, but day 4 ended up being the warmest day of my entire trip. The first order of business was to go and fetch some boiling water from one of the communal kitchen facilities to put into my Aeropress. All good days start with an espresso-based beverage of sorts. In the Kruger Park, the most practical way for me to do this is with an Americano – brewed either in my Aeropress or Moka Pot. My Aeropress-Americano and baked oats went down well, and as soon as I was done with breakfast, I put my camping chair & table into my tent. By now the sun was up and was already hinting at the kind of warm temperatures it would be producing, so for the first time since I’d arrived, I put on shorts and a T-shirt.

Today’s mission: To drive slightly North of Tshokwane Picnic Spot via the H10, stopping at Nkumbe lookout point on the way. Not only is Nkumbe an incredibly beautiful spot, but it also holds a special place in my heart for other reasons. I’ve got fond family memories from Nkumbe, and every year I make sure that wherever I stay in the Park, I’m able to reach Nkumbe at least once. One of my friendly campsite neighbours told me that I shouldn’t drive up the H10 because most of the veld (grass) was burnt along the way, but this wasn’t going to deter me. I was also looking forward to stopping at the stunning Orpen Dam, and then I decided that on my way back I’d come down the S29 because I was keen to check out Mlondozi Picnic Site, and I’d enjoyed this road the evening before when I was out on the night drive.

I packed a bottle of water, a can of Coke, the last of my biltong and a bit of dried fruit. I wasn’t really sure how long the drive would take me. I didn’t even bother to try and work out the mileage that I’d be travelling. I knew that any supplies I might need could be purchased at Tshokwane. I actually thought I might have lunch at Tshokwane, but in the end, even though I drive slowly in the Park and I spent quite a bit of time at Nkumbe, I reached Tshokwane long before lunch time.

I set out from Lower Sabie, and drove as slowly as possible along the short stretch of the H4-1 that takes you to the turn-off that crosses the Sabie River onto the H10. This short stretch of road was where we had spotted a rogue lioness twice the night before. I scanned the bush with my eyes, my ears focused on all of the sounds around me. The grass was dense in this area, and I saw very little. Relying on my ears, I stopped a few times after hearing the grass moving. More often than not, my ears were right, but all I spotted was Warthogs and Impala. I whispered to these creatures that I was about to spot a lioness, and that they should watch out, but unfortunately my positivity didn’t do the trick and I reached the H10 turnoff without finding what I’d been looking for.

I read somewhere that if you were to drive on every single road in the Kruger National Park, looking as far as your eyes could see in every direction from your car, you would’ve only seen about 20% of the Park at the end of your journey. I can’t even begin to imagine what else must be out there. Having used all of my senses along the short stretch of the H4-1, driving at a snail’s pace with the windows down, scanning the bush as closely as I could, I still only managed to spot some creatures because I vaguely heard them brushing through the grass. Stopping the car with the engine at idle, peering deep into the bush using binoculars, I was able to spot some wildlife. All I could think of was how much we probably miss out on driving through the park at the speed limit with the windows up and the aircon on. I was imagining how the elusive Leopard probably lies in its tree a few hundred meters from the road laughing at all of us as we go by, completely oblivious to it. Right at the top of my Bucket List is to travel along every single meter of the more than 1800km of public roads in the Kruger Park, staying at every rest camp along the way, experiencing as much of the Park as possible. I’m hoping to work out a way of getting onto some of the private roads too! Back to Day 4, though.

As my neighbour had said to me earlier, much of the land between Lower Sabie and Tshokwane is burnt to a crisp, and because of the lack of grass for grazing, there’s not too much wildlife around. I did eventually come across a large herd of Zebra at a water hole and I spent a good while watching them.

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 The more time I spend in the Park, the more I realise that all creation is magnificent in its own way. We take the Impala for granted – there are more than 125 000 of them in the Park, after all. But have you ever taken 5 minutes to just sit and watch an Impala? They are the most stunning creatures!

Although there was not too much game about, the drive was still beautiful. For the most part, the road is quite flat, until a few kilometers before Nkumbe, where you start to climb. I always look forward to this part of the drive because I know what’s coming! Before long, I’d made my way up to Nkumbe. The view from up there is breathtaking, to say the least:

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 You’re allowed to get out of your vehicle and walk down a short path to the actual lookout point where there is a little thatch roof and a couple of steps to sit on, set right on the edge of a mountain, high above the Knob Thorn/Maroela Veld and Delagoa Thorn Thicket that you gaze out upon. It was built in memory of Molly Thornley, and although I don’t know who she was, I can understand why her family decided upon this spot. It’s absolutely magnificent, and the little thatch hide blends perfectly into the rocks and bush that it’s set amongst.

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There was no one else at the Nkumbe lookout point when I got there, so I just sat back under the little thatch roof and took everything in. The Kruger Park extends as far as the eye can see. This is a great spot to help you appreciate the vastness of the Kruger. From up here you can literally see the curvature of the earth – much like if you’re looking out at the ocean from a vantage point high up. And everything you can see – to the west in front of you or to the South or North on your left and right-hand side, is Kruger National Park.

If you bear in mind that you’re only seeing a tiny fraction of the Kruger Park, you’ll begin to understand that you are just a small speck in the midst of something phenomenal. This is not just a game reserve. This is, as my dad says, the greatest National Park on the planet. Anyone who’s been to the Kruger Park will know that although it is big, but not the biggest; that although most of the creatures that inhabit it are not unique to it; and that even though there are many other National Parks in the world, the Kruger National Park trumps all of the others. There is nothing that compares to it.

After sitting at Nkumbe for a while, some other tourists started to arrive. I’d been thinking back to previous experiences here. Reminiscing. But this time was over for now. The whole idea behind a National Park is not only to conserve and protect everything within its borders, but also to allow the public to enjoy the park. I would much rather have the public feel what I’d been feeling, I’d much rather let them be amazed as I had been amazed, than have it all to myself. That’s the beauty of the Kruger National Park.

Once I’d left Nkumbe, I pulled over a short while later at another lookout point, but one where you can’t get out of your car. This one looks out to the East – towards the border of Mozambique, which is only a stone’s-throw away. On this side of the road, however, most of the grass was burnt.

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From here I wound my way down to Tshokwane Picnic Site. Tshokwane has been hit hard by flooding in the past, but it has been restored well and is now a lovely little oasis. I love getting out of the car at Tshokwane. There’s always quite a lot of noise, but in a good way – a bit of an atmosphere in a sense. You can hear people talking excitedly about what they’d seen so far in the day. You can hear birds chirping, and food being cooked on Skottels and braais. You can hear the sound of cars’ tyres rolling along the gravel and dirt, and on this visit, I was greeted by the sound of a lady screaming as a Vervet Monkey stole an apple right off of the table in front of her. This has become a bit of a problem, as the monkeys now know that humans are soft targets for a quick bite to eat. But if you keep your wits about you and don’t leave anything lying around, you’ll be fine. Apart from having a rusk stolen out of my hand by a monkey at Berg en Dal when I was a young boy, I’ve never had any trouble with monkeys.

I made my way across to a table right on the edge of the picnic site, next to the river. I immediately noticed that there was water in the river. It wasn’t really running – there were just a couple of pools. But this is the first time I’ve ever seen water at Tshokwane in winter, which is a very good sign. About 25 meters from me, a Bush Buck was grazing in the bushes. She was very tentative at first, but as I sat there in silence, she made her way closer and closer to me. Eventually she was not more than 5 meters away. She stayed here for a while, but was startled by 2 rangers who’d stopped at Tshokwane, and had come to where I was sitting so that they could cross the river. One of them was carrying a rifle, but there is a staff village across the river and so none of us thought anything of it. Until we heard a gunshot going off a few minutes later, that is. Now there was almost a sense of urgency around the picnic spot, everybody speculating about what could have happened on the other side of the river.

A few days earlier, 3 poachers had been arrested in the Tshokwane area. There is a large military/police/ranger presence in the park now because of poaching, and a lot of South Africans are very sensitive about the issue. As a result, I think most of the tourists at the picnic site immediately suspected poaching. I wasn’t so sure. I waited around for a while, but eventually I decided that the rangers weren’t coming back. As I got up, however, they resurfaced on the other side of the river. I waited where I was so I could find out what had happened. But when I asked them, they seemed almost surprised that so many of us were so interested! They said that the rifle they were carrying hadn’t been fired for a while, so they just had to go and test it. Drama averted! The picnic site relaxed again, and I got back into my car and headed along the H1-3 towards Satara.

It had now become quite hot, and my concentration was low after having already been on the road for a while. I decided that my mission in the direction of Satara was becoming fruitless, and so I turned around, back past Tshokwane again. I turned left onto the H10, back in the direction of Lower Sabie. I then took a left-turn a few minutes later and headed along the S35 to Orpen Dam. This is a beautiful place to stop. You can get out of your car and sit in a hide that looks over the dam. Once again, this is the most water I’ve ever seen in the Orpen Dam in winter, but it is good news.

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I didn’t stay for too long, and got back in my car. Along the way I made another quick stop at the Nkumbe lookout point, knowing it would be quite a while before I’d be back here again. The drive back towards Lower Sabie was beautiful. Note how all of the grass is burnt on the left.

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On the way down, I spotted the same herd of Zebra from earlier, but they’d been joined at their watering hole by some Blue Wildebeest, which is another one of my favourite species. I then turned off the H10, onto the S122. I knew I’d be driving through the burnt veld, but it was a great drive none-the-less, and without seeing another car along the way, I stopped at the Mlondozi Picnic Site. I’d never been here before, but when I got there, I had to queue for a parking space – and I understand why! Looking down onto the Mlondozi Dam, this has got to be the most beautiful picnic spot I’ve ever been to. Although it was busy, it has a feel of exclusivity about it. It really is in the middle of nowhere. But judging by its popularity, people have obviously heard about its beauty. I certainly recommend it!

I was banking on being able to buy a Kudu Boerewors roll or something like that, as these sort of things are available at the other picnic sites and rest camps in the braai (BBQ) areas. But Mlondozi didn’t offer anything like this. So I grabbed my coke out of the car and drank it while enjoying the view. There was a small herd of Elephants playing in the water, and a big Kudu bull on the other side of the dam, with a very impressive set of horns. I then decided to move on, and make my way back to Lower Sabie, driving along the S29.

After having been in the car most of the day, I relaxed in camp for a couple of hours. I took a walk to the restaurant area at Lower Sabie, which has a beautiful wooden deck. There’s also a set of steps that I think most people don’t know about, which lead you up to a bit of a lookout point above the restaurant deck. It would be easy to spend hours gazing out at the large expanse of Sabie River in front of you. From here I took a walk past the “Luxury Safari Tents” to see what they’re like. I haven’t checked their pricing, but I think they’d prove to be a fantastic alternative to the traditional huts. They’re all set on wooden platforms along the fence, and I’m sure the view is beautiful. Also, there’s no concrete, bricks or thatch to block out any of the sounds of the bush at night! I must say at this point, though, that because as a youngster, most of our trips to the Park were in a large family group, we generally stayed in one of the guest houses available in the rest camps just to cater for our numbers. But one year there was very little accommodation available, and all we managed to get was a couple of the original “rondavels” (which are small, round, thatch-roofed huts) at Pretoriuskop Rest Camp, and we all agreed that it was the best, most authentic Kruger Park experience we’d ever had.

Back to this year’s Kruger Adventure, though. After walking around camp for a while, I stopped at the shop and bought an ice cream. By the time I got back to my tent, I felt rested and ready to get back into my car. Being pretty close to the middle of winter, the camp gates are open for the least amount of time at this time of year – opening at 6:00am and closing at 17:30pm. I decided to stay in the general Lower Sabie area as I only had about an hour and a half before the camp gates would close. I turned out of Lower Sabie and headed for sunset dam. I watched the resident Crocs, Hippos and Buffalo for a while, and just as I decided to leave, a troop of Baboons decided to provide us with some entertainment:

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From here, I drove back towards Lower Sabie, and then further along the H4-2. I crossed the Sabie River on the H10, but turned around again at the S128, which is only a few hundred meters up the H10. Back at the H4-2, I turned left, driving further away from Lower Sabie. A few kilometres along the H4-2, the road bends to the right, away from the Sabie River. At this point I decided to turn around again. The sun was going down, and I had to bear in mind that camp gates were closing soon, and if I were to come across a good sighting, I’d need to be sure that I could get back to the camp in time. I was really hoping to see the lioness that I’d seen the previous night. I was sure she’d pop out of the bush, onto the road at any moment. As I turned around, though, I looked straight into the most stunning sunset. It literally was breathtaking. It reminded me that Lions might be a highlight to see, but we must never overlook anything else.

I’d been trying to ignore the thought that I’d be leaving this phenomenal place in the morning. I didn’t want it to be true. Every time I’m in the Kruger, when the time to leave draws near, I get this feeling inside of me. It’s hard to explain, but it’s almost like a desperate longing to stay. But I’m a rational person, and the real world outside of the borders of the Park is actually the very same thing that allows me to travel to the Park. It’s the benchmark of reality, and it’s the obvious thing to compare the Kruger to. Out on the H4-2, with the sun setting in front of me, I decided that although reality was beckoning, I was going to make the most of the little time I had left in the Park. I would be driving back through the camp gates no earlier than 17:29. I was at home out in the bush, and there was no need to cut my time out there any shorter than was necessary.

I drove back over the Sabie River, as water is the very thing that sustains all life, and the wildlife is more aware of that any of us are. Crossing the bridge, though, I’m not sure I would have even noticed a lion. This is the view that greeted me:

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It was absolutely stunning. The more time I was out there, the more in awe of creation I became. I could feel my appreciation for the world around me growing and being renewed and refreshed. I decided to make my way back across to Sunset Dam near to Lower Sabie. It’s close to the entrance gates and of course, in the interests of sustaining life, plenty of game is drawn to it. Unfortunately, so are plenty of tourists. Arriving at Sunset Dam was a bit like trying to find a parking space at a busy shopping mall on a Saturday morning on pay day! But once I’d found my spot, I switched off the engine, picked up my binoculars, and just appreciated what lay in front of me. I thought a photo of Sunset Dam at sunset would be fitting, I tweeted this picture, which is a collage of some of the views I’d come across just that evening:

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Views like this are not in short supply in this piece of Heaven that we call the Kruger National Park. You can literally be anywhere inside the park, looking in any direction you like, and you’ll see something beautiful. The time was 17:25, and myself, along with the other few cars that had stayed out this late, went back to camp in a bit of a convoy. I arrived back at Lower Sabie a couple of seconds before the gates closed with a full heart. I’d managed to ignore the thought of leaving the next day, and I felt on top of the world.

Back at camp, it was time to start the braai (BBQ). Most of the campers around me were outside doing the same thing. My friendly neighbour from over the road asked me about my day, and then told me about hers. There’s such a sense of community within the campsites. We’re all very different people from different cultures and walks of life, but we all have one thing in common: We’re all in love with the Kruger Park, and this is enough to connect us. Instant friends. Common questions from other campers include “What’s your name?”, “Where are you from?”, “How long are you in the Park for?”, and “Which camps are you staying in?”. Once those formalities are out of the way, you’re friends.

I had bought some Sekelhout (which is a very solid kind of wood, good for making a braai with) back in Gauteng, but had forgotten to bring an axe with to hack it into smaller pieces so that it would burn more easily. This hadn’t been a problem as yet, and I’d used it with great success so far. This evening was no different as far as I was concerned. My fire was burning nicely. The wood was red-hot and burning down slowly. It would take a while, but I was used to that, and I was in no rush in any case. I sat by the fire with a Castle Light, and just enjoyed being out there. It was completely dark, but my shorts and T-shirt were still more than enough clothing on this warm winter’s evening.

Every now and then I bent forwards and blew on the burning logs a bit, just to give them a bit of encouragement and to make sure the flames stayed alive. Before long, my nearest neighbour walked over with one of those handheld devices that are used for blowing on a fire and said I was welcome to use it. Although it was completely unnecessary, I decided to humour his kind gesture, and made use of his “fire-blower”. I’ve got no idea what the device’s actual name is. In any case, my neighbour hung around for a while and we had a great chat. He’d been in the park for 19 days, but this evening was also his last. As he left, he told me to keep his fire-stoking-device, and just bring it back when I was done with my braai.

I sat back down in my camping chair, and not one minute later, my other neighbour arrived. He was the husband of the lady that I refer to as my “friendly neighbour from across the road”. He’d been very quiet so far, but I could tell he was an introverted man. He brought with him two handfuls of wood chips, which he placed strategically amongst my logs. From across the road, his wife said “Don’t worry, He’s got a Masters Degree in braai-making”. I wasn’t worried. The wood chips burst to life. Quite unnecessary, once again, but I appreciated the gesture. This neighbour chatted a bit, but he had a heavy Afrikaans accent, and although I’m fluent in Afrikaans, he would have none of it. He spoke to me in English. It was somewhat of a broken conversation, as he kept stopping to think of what word to use next, but I enjoyed this man’s company.

Without saying anything, he disappeared over the road, and then came back with his axe. He chopped up all of my remaining wood, and then proceeded to place most of it on my fire. He said “Now you’ll have a bonfire!”, and then went back over to his caravan. Indeed, I had a bonfire!

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Not necessarily what I’d wanted, but it was just really nice to connect with some fellow campers anyway. As a result of this massive fire, I only cooked quite late, and instead of going to the hassle of trying to prepare a nicely balanced meal, I decided I’d be having rump steak, with a side of, well, more rump steak. It was delicious though, and I sat and enjoyed it while my last bit of wood burned away.

After supper, I sat and enjoyed being in the Kruger Park. I appreciated being in my favourite place in the world. As is always the case, my mind began to calculate how much it would cost to just live in the Kruger – to have a permanent campsite here. We can always dream! I was surrounded by darkness. The smouldering ashes of my fire were no longer casting any light on my campsite. I heard a rustling noise at the base of a tree and shone my torch on it. It was what I’ve identified as an Angoni Vlei Rat. One of the 147 mammals of the Kruger Park.

My fire was now pretty much dead and as hard as I tried, I couldn’t ignore the fact that I was getting tired. I headed off to the ablutions to shower, and then came back to camp. No need for a hot water bottle this evening. It was late and as much as I wanted to prolong the Kruger experience, as I said earlier, I’m a rational person and knew I needed a proper sleep before the long drive home the next day. I’d had one neighbour who’d been very quiet while I’d been in Lower Sabie, but that all changed this evening. As soon as I got into bed, he started to snore. So loudly, in fact, that it almost made my eyes rattle in their sockets. And he was a good 20m away from me. There would be no enjoying the sounds of the bush this evening. I tried to convince myself that it was not my neighbour snoring, but rather the rogue lioness roaring just outside the fence. I couldn’t convince myself. This didn’t really matter, though. I fell asleep so quickly. There was no denying that I’d had a long day, and that brought with it the end of Day 4.

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