Kruger Park – the drive to Leeupan

From the Kruger gate you have access to the southern section of Kruger Park and comfortable drive of around 41 kilometres to Tshokwane picnic site and a further five or six kilometres to Orpen dam. Although these places are not too far from Skukuza, time and distance are too very different dimensions in an African game park. A herd of elephant might block the road for half an hour or a pride of lions decide to lie on the road when it is cool enough. There is a 50km/hour speed limit in the park, and if you want to see anything, that speed is too fast, and you certainly cannot drive safely at that speed on the gravel roads. By driving slowly along the road you can spend more time looking into and around the bush which will greatly improve your chances of seeing the wildlife.

“A game park is a sanctuary for nature. A place where nature in all its colours, shapes and sizes comes first. Be quiet and with a little patience mother nature might reveal her family and you will discover it is a place of great learning. A place of rejuvenation.” ~ Mike Haworth

Travelling slowly along the Skukuza-Tshokwane road, and only about 20 metres into the bush, we saw four adult bull Kudus lying down in the thick long grass with only their neck, head and horns showing. A male Kudu starts to grow its horns between six and 12 months of age. The horns form their first spiral rotation at around two years of age, and do not reach their full two and a half rotations until the male is around six years old. Some of the older bulls occasionally have three full turns in their horns.

We adopt the idea that the faster you drive the less you see. One of my reasons for going to a game reserve is to relax and untether myself from the hurly-burly of urban life. The last thing I want to do in the game reserve is tear around.

“If you have the choice, chose a dirt road. It is quieter and you will feel the road constantly changing beneath you. And yes, the bumps will shake off your urban anxiety. There are no verges. Grass and trees grow right to the edge of it. So anything can step out from the long grass or from behind the bush. Go slowly for you might just be in for a surprise.” ~ Mike Haworth

We decided to go to Leeupan (meaning Lion pan in Afrikaans). This pan is off the main road between Skukuza and Satara camps. Turn off the main road and drive for about a kilometre and you will find a large open area with a pan of water. There are lots of reeds and water grass in the pan and various species of acacia trees, including knob thorns, surrounding it. The pan attracts a variety of wetland birdlife and animals which come to drink.

This pan is seasonal, so it fills up with the summer rains and often dries up in winter. We have always found it to be a productive photographic area. As you drive along the gravel road to get to Leeupan, there are thick woodlands together with numerous dead leadwood trees. The raptors seem to prefer these dead trees as they are high enough for them to scan the area for potential prey. On the way into the pan we came across this adult Tawny eagle.

A vibrant salmon red “Pride of die Kaap” bush adding a splash of colour to the verdant green bush veld.

“The power of imagination makes us infinite.”~ John Muir

About five kilometres before you get to Leeupan on the main road from Skukuza to Satara, there are the Kruger Tablets which are plaques dedicated to Paul Kruger, the founder of the Sabie Game Reserve, which later became Kruger National Park. This area is a outcrop of large granite boulders. It is well known to be a favourite place for lions as they can get high enough to enjoy the huge vista of the surrounding plains. Where ever there is a large outcrop of boulders there is a good chance you will find Klipspringers. This adult male and female were on the rocks just past the tablets.

We stopped and watched them for a while. These are beautiful and unique small antelope. They are extremely agile on the rocks, and have unique hooves which allow them to stand on their tips with soft soles to provide grip. This small antelope is territorial. The black patches just below the front of the eye are pre-orbital glands which they rub on twigs to mark their territory. Both the male and female have these pre-orbital glands and both mark the pair’s territory.

A male Tree agama with its characteristic blue head. This agama was busy defending his territory up and down this tree trunk. The blue head gets bluer during the breeding season and the dominant male usually has the brightest blue head. These agamas are diurnal, arboreal and insectivorous and eat crickets, caterpillars, worms, and spiders. This agama’s main predators are snakes and hornbills.

From the side of the main road we saw a male Grey hornbill fly to the side of a large tree. There was a small hole in the bottom of what looked to be a large knot in the tree trunk, where a branch must have fallen off many years ago. I know that the Yellow-billed, Red-billed and Grey hornbills all use cavities in trees to build their nests. They usually find a cavity at least four metres off the ground, and the cavity needs to house a female and her chicks so must be at least 20 cm in depth – enough for the female’s body ( minus wing and tail feathers) plus small chicks. I was intrigued by this nest because I could not see how the female had managed to get into this cavity and seal herself inside.

“Life is not a matter of milestones, but of moments.” ~Rose Kennedy

Once the nest has been prepared, the female climbs into the next cavity and then seals herself inside, helped by the male using a mixture of mud and dung. Just a small feed hole is left open. Once walled in the nest, the female lays her eggs and sheds all of her wing and tail feathers. The male will feed his female while she incubates her eggs and feeds her chicks. Once she has regrown her wing and tail feathers, which coincides with the chicks being about half grown, she breaks out of the nest cavity. The male and female then reseal the nest cavity leaving a feeding hole for the chicks who remain in the nest until they are about 45 days old, they the parents break open the hole for their chicks to emerge. The prime purpose of the elaborate nesting procedure is to keep predators out.

Another stem of Yellow flame lilies which would gladden any Zimbabwean’s heart. This perennial herb can reach a height of around three metres, rambling and climbing over neighbouring plants using the tendrils at the end of its leaves. This is a “look but don’t touch” plant as all parts of the plant are extremely poisonous due to the presence of toxic alkaloids and can be fatal if eaten. Even to touch the plant can result in skin irritation

This male Swainson’s spurfowl was foraging for seeds in old elephant dung in the middle of the gravel road. You can often find baboons and other spurfowl doing the same. The elephant only digests and makes good use of around 40% of its food intake and so leaves many of the ingested seeds unprocessed.

As we were driving slowly around the one side of the pan we disturbed a pair of Blacksmith lapwings. We stopped to allow the female to settle down. It was only when she settled down in a small patch of grass on the edge of the driving area that we saw she had a nest. She bent her knees and settled down to incubate the single egg between her legs. Normally the Blacksmith’s nest is not far from water and this one must have been about ten metres from the pan’s waters edge. The clutch size is usually three to four eggs, so I suspect her clutch had been raided by a baboon or Monitor lizard. The mottled colouring on the egg made it superbly well camouflaged, to us at least.

We found a pair of Saddle-billed storks at the pan. They prefer to forage close to water, along large rivers, freshwater marshes, floodplains and pans just like this one. The Saddle-billed stork feeds in a similar way to a heron. It walks slowly through the shallow water looking for fish, frogs or lizards even small birds or mammals. It either stalks its prey or stabs its bill into the grass or water, catching its prey by contact.

“Travel is more than seeing the sights; it is the change that goes deep and permanent in the ideas of living.” ~ Miriam Beard

The female is slightly smaller than the male but they both have white body and neck feathers. Their upper parts, from midway along their back to their tail, are black as are their primary and secondary wing feathers. The female has a bright yellow eye and a red bill with a black band around the middle of the bill.

The male and female have the yellow saddle on top of their upper mandible directly in front of the eyes but the male also has two yellow wattles or “stirrups” below his chin. The male has black eyes. These storks have an impressive courtship display which involves dancing and jumping while bowing to each other with their wings wide open showing off their dramatic black and white colouring. The primaries and secondaries are white and the coverts are black. We watched a courtship display but I could not get a clean enough images to show you. We were very grateful for this rare sighting.

Two of the first wild ducks I came across as a youngster in Zimbabwe were White-faced whistling and a Knob-billed ducks. We found a small group of Knob-billed ducks at Leeupan. The Knob-billed duck is an occasional intra-African migrant. The head and neck of the male and female is white with black speckles and they have an almost continuous black crown and nape. The upper parts are black and belly and sides are white. Their primary and secondary wing feathers are black but the coverts have a beautiful green, bluish-purple and bronze gloss. The adult males have a large flesh black knob on their top mandible. The precise purpose is unknown but it is thought to be ornamental displaying sexual maturity and health. Unhindered by the large knob on his bill, this male was energetically stripping and feeding on the seed inflorescences from the top of grass stems.

The Knob-billed duck feeds on vegetation by grazing or dabbling but will eat small fish and invertebrates when found. We only saw a few “knobbies” at the pan. Wherever I have seen Knob-billed ducks there have only been a few in one place.

A lone Woolly-necked stork foraging along the pan’s water edge. This is one of the smaller storks, along with the Openbill and Abdim, which is between 75 and 85 cm tall. The larger storks are all above 100 cm tall with the Saddle-billed and Marabou storks being the tallest African storks standing around 150cm high. Woolly-necked storks prefer wetland habitats because they feed on fish, frogs, toads, snakes, lizards, large insects, larvae and crabs.

The Woolly-necked stork has dark body and wing plumage which has a coppery-purple gloss, but its belly is white. This stork has a white woolly neck and head though its forehead is black. It has a red eye and a grey bill which becomes red towards the tip. The is no sexual dimorphism so you cannot tell the sexes apart. These storks are intra-African migrants and I have seen large flocks along both the Chobe river in northern Botswana and at one of the dams in the Serengeti.

On the way into Leeupan we saw a Tawny eagle and on the way out we saw this spectacular male Bateleur eagle. He had dramatic colouring of black, white and chestnut brown. The top of his bill, facial skin and legs were red though his facial skin does change colour depending on how excited or agitated he is, the redder the more agitated and a more yellow-orange colour signals a calmer state.

The female is bigger than the male Bateleur and the two have quite different wing colouring. The male usually has grey upper wing coverts and black secondary coverts and black primary and secondary wing feathers. When in flight the male has a thick black tailing edge to the underside of his wing feathers. The female has chestnut brown upper wing coverts, black primary wing feathers but the lower section of her secondary wing feathers are black and the upper part is white or light grey.

We did not get to see this male Bateleur fly but they are called the “acrobat or tight-rope walker” because, in flight, there is a rocking motion of their extended wings. The wing movement looks like the movement of a tightrope walker who is moving his extended arms up and down to balance. Its long wings and short tail are distinctive. They are magnificent flyers and it is always a thrill to see a Bateleur eagle effortlessly gliding at speed through the sky. Acrobatic displays are characteristic. This close cousin of the Snake eagle spends around eight to nine hours day on the wing.

“Serenity flows through the natural world. Listen and you can hear. The beating of your own heart, and the deepening of your breath, are in rhythm and connection with the powerful tranquility of creation that becomes fully alive in you as you return to the roots of your being.”~Bella Bleue

After spending many hours wandering around these wildlife sanctuaries, I am always filled with wonder and a deep sense of peace, diversity and balance.

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

4 thoughts on “Kruger Park – the drive to Leeupan

  1. Makes a great read, especially when you have can give it the time it deserves!
    Thanks Mike for adding value to the CNP web chat a couple of weeks ago.

  2. Thanks for this drive through the KNP. Love your writing and descriptions of the drive, game and birds. Cant wait to get back to the bush.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s