Kruger Park: Orpen and Nkumbe to the Sabie

The title will not mean much to those who have not been to Kruger Park in South Africa. For those that have been there, this will be a familiar and loved route. For those who have not visited the Kruger Park, perhaps this post might entice you to do so.

“Because the greatest part of a road trip isn’t arriving at your destination. It’s all the wild stuff that happens along the way.” ~ Emma Chase

After a fascinating morning at Leeupan, we decided to drive to Orpen dam for lunch. From Leeupan, we drove past the Tshokwane picnic site, which is always a very popular stopover, and turned right off the main road heading to Satara onto the road heading south toward Lower Sabie. After a few kilometres we turned left on the gravel road to Orpen dam.

“There is one thing which gives radiance to everything. It is the idea of something around the corner.” ~Gilbert K. Chesterton

After driving for a couple of minutes along the gravel road, we came across a lone Side-striped jackal. This is a timid rarely seen nocturnal jackal, but for some reason this character was out in the open around midday. It is slightly larger than the, often seen, Black-backed jackal. Its pelage is grey to buff coloured with a darker back, but its sides are marked with a whitish stripe with a dark brown lower margin. This was the first time I have seen a Side-striped jackal in South Africa. They are only found in the northeast of the country, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. This Side-striped jackal did not look to be in good condition as his coat had mange. Once the jackal saw us, it crept into this bush out of the sun and mostly out of sight, and waited for us to move on. I never got an opportunity to get a decent full body shot but for me it was rare and exciting sighting.

We usually go to below the Open dam wall along the N’waswitsontso river. There are numerous large trees lining the river which offer welcome shade. It gets really hot around midday in the Kruger Park in summer.

We visited the Kruger Park in mid-January this year and the Kruger had good rains before we arrived nourishing the bush to its verdant best. The river was full and the area was brimming with wildlife. We stopped to have lunch under a large tree and were serenaded by Fork-tailed Drongos and Woodland kingfishers. It was very restful with just the sounds of nature all around us.

We saw lots of elephants down near the river. The vegetation was thick and you have to drive slowly because you can easily come around a corner and find a bull elephant standing in the road browsing on bushes next to the road. This must be a wonderful time for them with plenty of water to drink and cool off in, and lush vegetation to eat.

“The road is there, it will always be there. You just have to decide when to take it.” – Chris Humphrey

From one of our favourite spots at Orpen dam we wandered down the main road to Lower Sabie camp. On the way you drive up to one of the high spots in the area called Nkumbe which has a viewpoint where you can stop, get out of your vehicle and look down over a vast vista.

Nkumbe is the highest point in the Lebombo south of the N’waswitsontso and offers views over the vast grassland plains and the Shilolweni woodlands which are spectacular. If you look carefully you will see a few small family herds of elephant browsing along the Mapilini river in front of the lookout point. You will only see these colours after good rains in summer.

After spending an hour or so just gazing over this vast verdant landscape we wandered on down towards the Sabie river and turned off the tarred road at Muntshe onto the gravel road which would take us along the Sabie river. This next image is a typical view along a gravel road where the elephants always have right of way, as with all of the wildlife in the park. The road crossing can take quite a long time if it is a large spread out herd. We gave them plenty of space so as not to agitate the cows with calves.

Further on down the gravel road along the Sabie river there were numerous places to stop under large Natal Mahoganies with ample shade on a hot sunny day. The vegetation along the Sabie river is riverine forest with massive trees including the Sycamore fig, Leadwood, Jackal-berry, Natal Mahogany, Tamboti, Weeping Boer-bean and Apple-leafs. There is plenty of wildlife down along and in the river. This hippo was good enough to provide a perfect sunbathing platform for several terrapins.

“We build too many walls and not enough bridges.”~ Isaac Newton

After driving along the gravel road along the Sabie river for a few hours we turned onto the tarred H12 to drive along the high level bridge across the Sabie river. The Sabie river is about 750 metres wide at the bridge. It is wide because just upstream of this bridge, the Sabie and Sand rivers join. The Sabie river is considered a semi-arid river with highly variable water levels due to strongly seasonal and unpredictable rainfall. Both the Sabie and Sand rivers start outside Kruger Park and have large catchment areas. With moderate rains, the water flow in the Sabie river reaches a few hundred cubic metres per second but the during the massive flood in 2000, the flow swelled to as much as 5,500 cubic metres per second, as big as the Zambezi under normal flow conditions.

“The best picture is around the corner. Like prosperity.” ~ Ansel Adams

In mid-january along the Sabie river there is plenty of water and where there is water there are usually fish and where there are fish there are Fish eagles. Needless to say the Fish eagles are not left in peace. If it is not a Lilac-breasted roller driving bombing the Fish eagle because it is too close to its nest in the dead tree trunk, it is a Fork-tailed drongo making it quite clear that the Fish eagle does not need to linger at this spot.

This happened to be a particularly large and majestic Fish eagle. Being so large, it was probably a female and looking at those talons I suspect there were very few fish that escaped her clutches.

The weather was very variable with plenty of rain and thick cloud cover. As a wildlife photographer often when the weather is at its worst it offers unique lighting conditions or uncommon wildlife behaviour and sometimes both. The message is don’t stay indoors when it is overcast and rainy you will miss many photographic opportunities.

“We must begin thinking like a river if we are to leave a legacy of beauty and life for future generations.” ~ David Brower

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

Have fun, Mike

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