Kruger Adventures: 3 Magical Days in the North
Ah, the aroma of a freshly brewed cup of coffee on an early morning, as you make your fresh cheese and tomato sarmies (better known as “Padkos”), and pack the car. Camera, check. Bino’s, Check. Kruger Map, check. Three day’s worth of food and freshly baked treats, check. Clothes and toiletries? Yeah, those too... And don’t forget the biltong :)
We are a funny bunch really, we live at Crocodile Bridge Gate, overlooking the Kruger National Park, yet, when we have any opportunity to go on vacation, we go up North in Kruger. One would think we tire of it, but, how could you? When this is literally the best place on earth. And the North is so unbelievably different to the South. The landscapes, the wildlife, and a favourite for us the lack of game drive vehicles, and swarms of people.
So off we go, and as we drive through the gates and receive our permit, we are greeted by the friendly gate guards of Crocodile Bridge who have become our friends, our extended family.
We cross over the Vurhami Bridge, and a short while later are treated to the most incredible sighting of a leopard cub in a tree feeding on an impala, minutes later it’s mother joined it, while hyenas whooped it up at the bottom of the tree in the hopes that they would get some of the scraps.
Somewhere between Lower Sabie and Tshokwane on the H10, we came across a herd of sable antelope. I had never seen sable so far south before, nor so many, it was a breeding herd which had many adorable (and fluffy) calves.
We also came across a massive herd of buffalo, which must have been about 200 strong, and many herds of elephants. As the one herd was walking along the vast open plains we could see the Lebombo mountains in the backdrop, it was a breathtaking scene.
A little ways after Letaba we saw two handsome (and massive) male lions, one of which had a black mane. They were rather lazy, and took a few steps before flopping back down again.
We were heading 249 Kilometers North to Mopani, and would be staying in the Shanatseni Guest House for the night. It is a beautiful camp, surrounded by a huge population of Mopani Trees, which are the most gorgeous hues of oranges, browns and reds at this time of year. Mopani is home to 100's of little tree squirrels, and yellow billed hornbills. I could watch them for ages.
The guest house is simply fabulous, it is has been built in a circular style with a wooden gate and fence surrounding it, there are three individual huts to sleep in with en suite bathrooms, a main kitchen and lounge area with a braai area just outside of it, a fire pit in the centre of the little camp to have a bonfire and an outside seating area under thatch with glorious views of the Pioneer dam. The way the guesthouse has been built ensures privacy.
We even had a friendly visit from, Winston, the camp manager, just checking in to say hi and make sure we were having a good time.
We disconnected from technology, and played board games after a scrumptious braai, and while enjoying each other’s company we also enjoyed the nightly bush choir.
The next morning we packed up, and Toni and I headed up to the Tropic of Capricorn, just for a quick visit. A wonderful little spot where you can alight from your vehicle, and snap some shots of that awesome moment when you're crossing over this line of latitude. We then took the Tropic of Capricorn loop heading South toward Letaba. We had 2 nights booked there.
Letaba is probably my most favourite camp in Kruger. I love the views over the Letaba River, the Elephant Hall where you can learn about the Kruger's Magnificent Seven, and how green and lush the camp is. The shop is also super with everything you could possibly need, and the resident bushbucks that pop by for visits, as well as the greater bush babies that come out for nightly visits make me feel like I am in a Disney movie. The birds are constantly chattering away, and the tree squirrels are adorable to watch as the scurry about and play in the shady trees above. And yes, I even enjoy the Vervet Monkeys who stop by just after sunrise to knock you off, and at sunset when everyone is returning to camp after a days safari.
We usually book the guesthouses, but as this trip was a bit of a last minute thing, and usually the guesthouses book out a year in advance, we booked huts 62 and 63. Which are right next to Melville Guest House, so they offer the same views. It’s also sort of in the corner – so you feel pretty secluded. My family has stayed in these huts for over 40 years. Grammy always tells me that her and Gramps would stay in the 62 and that my nana and oupa would stay in 63, which makes our stay here even more special and sentimental.
These little rondawel huts albeit small, are super comfortable, and are actually all you really need. I would suggest though, that is if you can of course – that you might bring along some utensils from home, as they really didn’t have much. A good frying pan, a dish to put prepared food in, a whisk, a good knife. I think it’s sort of a lucky draw when you check in you never know what the hut will have in the way of utensils.
On our first morning that we woke up at Letaba, the bush magic was incredible. The sun was beginning to rise above the Letaba River, it was a crisp morning and I could hear lions roaring, and hyenas howling in the not so far distance.
I’m a coffee addict, so I took along my own mug, French press, and ground coffee. As I was about to prepare a cup for Toni and I, I was ambushed by a troop of marauding monkeys, who nearly gave me a heart attack, because as the one walked around the side of the hut, I was coming out the hut. I got a terrible fright, but so did he. We both Jumped, I screamed and then he came for me. So I ran back in the hut, and called on Toni for safety. I know it sounds silly but he was the main man in charge – as Gramps calls him, “Mr. Blue”. I needn’t elaborate on that, because if you’re Kruger lover like me, I'm pretty sure you’ll know why he calls the dominant male in the troops that.
(Side Note: Vervet Monkeys don't usually make me nervous. We have our own little bush mafia troop that live on our property at Ellie Walk, but I know them, so they don't worry me. Better the monkeys you know ;) )
We sat on the bench, over looking the river, as the squirrels, bush bucks and hornbills came out to say good morning. And as the bush was bustling with wildlife, we sat in silence taking it all in, sipping on our piping hot cups of coffee.
I love that Toni loves Kruger as much as I do, and that we can both sit in silence and appreciate these moments together. The moments when it feels as if time is standing still and we are in absolute paradise.
We got ready and went for a short morning drive before breakfast, and we came across the most bizarre thing, which was a first for us. We saw an albino squirrel. He was completely white, with red eyes. It was so unusual; I had actually googled it to make sure it was possible. Has anybody else seen an albino squirrel before? We spoke with the staff at Letaba, and they said they have actually seen quite a few in the area.
Nature is incredible.
Our last night in Letaba was enchanting as Grammy, Gramps, Toni and I sat outside enjoying the crisp night air, the waning crescent moon although just a sliver was shining brightly, and the milkyway was lit up with hundreds of stars, which you could see clearly. The fire was crackling, and then we heard… munch, munch, munch, so we took a walk to the pathway and shone down along the fence where we saw a massive elephant bull having his dinner. A night jar whistled in the distance, and a hippo chuckled.
I loved how alive the bush was, and how alive I felt…
Early wake ups meant early bed times, but that suited us just fine because we were tired. The good kind of tired, where you feel completely relaxed. The Kruger had done it’s job, we had switched off.
We packed up the next morning, and shipped out. It would be a long drive back to Crocodile Bridge ( 200 km’s) but it really doesn’t feel long because you can stop along the way at all the little camps – Satara, Tshokwane, Lower Sabie…
Tshokwane has got to be one of my all time favourite picnic spots in Kruger. I love that it is situated along the banks of a dry river bed, the style of the picnic site has an old fashioned flare to it, and all the little artsy crafty things you can purchase inside the shop are just superb. And then there's the delicious milk tart and jaffles that they make which are super tasty. The coffee is good too, so you don’t even need to pack a picnic, you can just arrive there and purchase what you feel like. The staff are super friendly, and full of life. I love to chat to them whenever we go there.
There is a lot of history around Tshokwane, which the Kruger Lovers will know. Stevenson Hamilton (AKA my hero of all time), set up Tshokwane as a rangers post in 1928. For those who don’t know he was the first warden of the Kruger, and in my opinion the reason Kruger is what it is today (Well at the very least it was his idea to open the Kruger to the public). I’m busy reading his book at the moment, “South African Eden: The Kruger National Park”, and it is absolutely fascinating.
I think the ranger who is stationed at Tshokwane is living his best life, with the abundance of wildlife surrounded by pristine wilderness. On the day we were on our way to Mopani, lions had caught a buffalo right next to the fence of his home. We missed the lions unfortunately, but we did get to see all of the scavengers, wakes of vultures, hyenas and even some warthogs (an odd sight indeed).
On our way back to Croc Bridge, while stopped here for a coffee, a breeding herd of ellies were in the riverbed just below, while the little bushbuck family with their small babies gathered just in front of them eating. The vervet monkeys were sat in the trees, watching, and waiting patiently for the visitors to take their eyes off of their food for one moment, so they could knock them off. The hornbills weren’t far off either.
Tshokwane is magic, and I think it’s because it feels so wild. The last time we had been there, there had been a hyena who had strolled through the parking lot, and a family of dwarved mongoose peeping out of the bushes.
We had an amazing trip and on the drive home were already planning our next trip in.
We also saw two honey badgers for the first time in my life (which Toni spotted), they are absolutely adorable. I was thrilled to be able to tick that off my “bucketlist sightings”.
Just before we arrived home, “our” pride of lions was lazing at Vurhami Dam. I say ours because they visit us almost daily at Croc Bridge (Ellie Walk), and I have grown to know them, and have become so fond of them. I know it may sound odd, but I felt so happy to be home, and to be welcomed back to the south by our lions. The next day, naturally they were in front of Ellie Walk again.
I realised I had turned in to a total bush girl. I had gone from traveling the world by ship, to living on the edge of the Kruger in total paradise, where I spent more time with animals than I did with people (apart from Toni and my grandparents). How my world had changed, but how I love every single moment of this sweet paradise.
Padkos: Afrikaans term which directly translates to "road food". Food/snacks that one packs to enjoy whilst on the road.
Biltong: Similar to that of beef jerky. Dried meat
Braai: Also known as a barbecue, where South Africans all get together and grill meat over an open fire.
The Magnificent Seven : Seven Elephant bulls that lived over 30 years ago, with impressive tusks that weighed over 50kg's each. The name, "Magnificent Seven", was based on the 1960 Hollywood film.
Milk Tart : A classic South African dessert, with a sweet pastry crust and a mild, creamy filling. Dusted off with Cinnamon.
Jaffles: A toasted Sandwich, made over a fire using a jaffle iron.