Punda Maria – a place of quiet and giants

We visited the northern section of Kruger Park in late April. It had been an extended wet summer season and the vegetation was verdant. Our first stop was Punda Maria camp, which we made our base for three days.

“Nothing but breathing the air of Africa, and actually walking through it, can communicate the indescribable sensations.” ~ William Burchell

There are three main drives around Punda Maria – Mahonie Loop, the Klopperfontein road (S60, S61) past the sacred Gumbandebvu koppies and the tarred road (H13-1) between Punda Maria Gate and Dzundzwini Hill.

Close to the Punda Maria camp, on the S60 heading towards Pafuri, lies the long, flat hill of Gumbandebvu. The hill is named after a chief who’s daughter, Khama, was reputed to have had the gift of rain-making. During years of drought, people from far and wide would bring gifts to Khama and implore her to bring rain. The story tells that she would slaughter a goat, prolonging its death cries so that the ancestors would hear the desperation of the people, and then climb to the top of the hill with bones and potions and implore the spirits to change the weather. Many people from this area today believe the hill is sacred and haunted. (Source: Siyaboga Africa).

“Anticipation is one of the magical aspects of a game drive. You just never know what is around the corner.” ~ Mike Haworth

Our first adventure was along the Mahonie loop. It is only about 30 kms but there is much to see and it can take many hours to complete. At the start of the Mahonie loop is this large Marula tree. The elephants have had a go at digging into its bark. During the dry season, elephants turn their attention to foraging from suitable species of trees, consuming leaves, twigs, roots and bark, and of course fruit and flowers when they are available.

After driving under the large Marula tree and another 100 metres further down the gravel road we found this elephant bull browsing on the leaves of another large Marula tree on the top of a low stony kopjie.

Further along the Mahonie loop, there is a wonderful view down onto the sandveld leading down to the Luvuvhu river in the middle distance. There were scattered clouds around but it was hot, well over 30 degrees centigrade.

A Burchell’s coucal was perched on a bush next to the gravel road. It had fluffed itself out to dry out after its skulking in the heavily dew-laden grass. This species of coucal has a beautiful ruby red eye. The fine barring on the upper tail coverts is a diagnostic feature of the Burchell’s coucal. The Senegal coucal looks similar but lacks the barring on its upper tail coverts.

Further along the Mahonie loop we stopped at the Maritube waterhole. There we found three old “dagga boys”, large old buffalo bulls, wallowing in a mud pool below to the waterhole. They rolled in the mud to cover themselves in it. The mud dries and acts as a form of skin protection from biting flies. One of the old “dagga boys” was enjoying a rub against a tree. Above his back you can see the amount of flies they have to content with.

A Lilac-breasted roller sitting on top of an anthill rubbed smooth by passing buffalo which needed a scratch. It was a perfect perch from which to hunt for insects disturbed by the buffalo wallowing in the mud close by.

A massive baobab tree which had lost almost all of its leaves in early autumn. The baobab tree is an icon of the African continent and probably the most recognisable tree too. This long-lived, majestic tree is the source of many traditional African remedies and lies at the heart of local folklore. Baobab trees grow in 32 African countries. Many lists of the oldest trees confine their classification to single-trunked plants that produce annual growth rings. These kinds of trees are easier to date. Scientists called dendrochronologists focus on assigning calendar years to tree rings and interpreting data within those rings. These long lived angiosperms (flowering plants with fruits) reach up to 30 metres high and up to an enormous 50 metres in circumference.

“Ancient trees are precious. There is little else on Earth that plays host to such a rich community of life within a single living organism.” ~ Sir David Attenborough

The Baobab is endemic to Africa and prefers the dry and arid areas. It is a succulent, which absorbs water during the rainy season and stores the water in its vast trunk, and produces a nutrient-dense fruit in the dry season. By virtue of its life saving offerings in the dry winter, it has became known as “The Tree of Life”.

A Purple roller perch hunting from the dead branch of a tree. Its elevated position gave it a good view of its surroundings and insects disturbed by animals. Its upper parts are mainly dark olive-green and the rump is a blue-purple. The closed wings look dark rufous and the tail is square. The sides of the head and underparts are a pale purple-brown, with heavy white streaks. This roller prefers well wooded dry areas.

A wild foxglove beautifully backlit in the early morning light. Despite its beauty, the entire wild foxglove is poisonous to animals and humans.

After having travelled along the Mahonie loop, we decided to venture around the Kopperfontein loop which is off the S60 which links with the main road from Shingwedzi camp to Pafuri. This is an interesting seven kilometer loop but the main feature is the Kopperfontein dam which is fed by the Shikuwa river which, in turn, is fed by a large catchment area.

Klopperfontein is a spring which was named after a hunter who camped in this region while on hunting trips before the park was proclaimed.

Northern Kruger is home to numerous large Baobab trees. They seemed to be in different stages of undress. Some still had all their leaves while others were leafless. The Baobab (Adansonia digitata) is southern Africa’s most distinctive tree by virtue of its great girth, fleshy trunk and widely spreading crown. There are many African legends around the origins of the Baobab. One such legend holds that a giant child of the gods once pulled the Baobab out of the ground and then stuck it back upside down, which accounts for its root-like branches.

On average, Baobabs start to flower and bear fruit at the age of about 20 years. Most Baobabs flower once a year and the flowers last for one day. Baobab flowers are beautiful large, white chiropterophilous flowers, which means that they evolved specifically for bat pollination. Baobabs are fertilised by beetles, hawkmoths, bats and bushbabies. Throughout Africa it is thought that bats are their main pollinators.  A science project conducted by Dr Sarah Venter, founder of the Baobab Foundation, together with her colleagues in 2020, found that bats were not pollinating Baobab flowers in South Africa. The research team is currently analysing Baobab nectar and scent in order to help them understand what role these characteristics are playing in determining what and how Baobab flowers are pollinated across Africa. After fertilisation, the ovule forms a seed and the ovary develops into a fruit pod. So each flower may produce a single fruit pod with many seeds if fertilisation is successful. The fruit pods are equipped with very tough shells. The seeds are embedded in a white pulp. The pulp can be diluted in water and drunk. It is rich in Vitamin C.

A dainty Emerald-spotted wood-dove foraging for grass seeds in the sand on the side of the gravel road. This wood-dove has its characteristic emerald green wing-spots, two rows of iridescent green spots on each wing. It also has blackish bands on the lower back and tail. When it takes flight, the underside of its wings are a beautiful rich ochre colour.

Once we arrived at Kopperfontein dam we found this elephant bull standing in the shallows at the edge of the dam. He was squirting water from his trunk onto a wound on his side. It was obviously troubling him. It looked like a piece of branch or a large splinter of some sort.

We had been watching the lone bull for about half an hour while quietly drinking a cup of coffee when he was joined by a group of four large bulls. The biggest was this magnificent bull. He was well on his way to becoming one of Kruger’s big tuskers.

“In a world where everything is changing so fast, there is something reverent about seeing a a big tusker. He is breathtakingly big. To attain his stature requires wisdom, intelligence, and an ability to adapt.” ~ Mike Haworth

A “big tusker” is a male bull elephant with tusks that weigh over 50kgs (110lbs) each. Tusks of that size are usually longer than two metres in length. Long enough to scrape along the ground when the elephant walks.

A SANP survey in 2017 revealed 12 previously unknown tuskers in Kruger National Park. A dozen of the 28 elephants assessed met the criteria to be considered “potential tuskers”. Their tusks typically weighed more than 50 kilograms (110 lbs) each.  According to Sanparks, there are 25 big tuskers in the park at present. When a new tusker is identified, current policy requires that he be named after his home range or characteristics unique to the individual tusker.

We watched the five large elephant bulls drink from the dam for about half an hour. The largest bull appeared to be the leader. When he had finished drinking he walked a few metres from the water’s edge and stopped. He waited for the others to finish drinking then turned to walk back into the bush and the others followed.

After a spellbinding hour or so at Kopperfontein dam all on our own with the elephants we decided to slowly make our way back to camp. The next image is of another magnificent giant in Kruger. This was an especially tall Baobab.

One reason Baobabs are thought to live so long and become so enormous is because they grow new stems, much like other trees grow new branches. Over time, these stems fuse into a ring-shaped trunk structure with a cavity in the middle. Over the course of a day the baobab’s girth can expand and shrink by several centimeters, based on water loss and absorption. When a dry period is followed by a hard rain, the trunks can swell rapidly.

Whenever we drive past a Baobab we are always on the look out for a leopard peering out from the shadows between the branches. We often see elephants standing in the shade of these giants.

“Advice from a tree: Stand tall and proud, Sink your roots into the earth, Be content with your natural beauty, Go out on a limb, Drink plenty of water, Remember your roots, Enjoy the view.” ~ Ilan Shamir

The next post from this trip will explore and discuss the Mphongolo loop which stretches loops off the H1-7 at Babalala and runs along the Mphongolo river to rejoin the H1-7 a few kilometres above the Shingwedzi camp.

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

4 thoughts on “Punda Maria – a place of quiet and giants

  1. Hi Mike
    Eric and I spent a few days in North KNP from 22-27/04. It was awesome. Your article makes me wish we were back there again.

      • No problem, Mike. We were just saying that we must have just missed each other with the trip to North KNP. Imagine if we did find you there, it would have been awesome and completely crazy at the same time.

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